Armed Pilots Greatly Outnumber Better-Known Federal Air Marshals WASHINGTON (CNN) — President Barack Obama’s budget ax is falling hard on a program that allows pilots to carry handguns in the cockpit as a last line of defense against terrorists. Obama’s proposed 2013 budget cuts in half funds for the Federal Flight Deck Officer (FFDO) program. The current budget of $25 million a year — which goes for such things as conducting background checks, training the pilots, and periodic gun proficiency tests and retraining, in addition to administrative costs — would be cut to $12 million. The thousands of armed pilots, who greatly outnumber the better-known federal air marshals, volunteer for the job, train at federal academies and are deputized to use their weapons in the cockpit. They call themselves the “single most cost-effective counter-terrorism measure” the government has taken. The federal government spends about $15 a flight for FFDOs, as armed pilots are called, compared to $3,000 per flight for federal air marshals, said Mike Karn, vice president of the Federal Flight Deck Officers Association. Those numbers are based on costs of the respective programs divided by the number of flights covered by armed pilots and air marshals. As recently as last March, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano voiced support for the program, agreeing with Rep. Chip Cravaack, R-Minnesota, a former airline pilot and FFDO, that it was a vital part of the country’s layer defenses. But in the budget documents released Monday, administration officials said security measures put in place since 2001, such as locked cockpit doors and 100% screening of airline passengers, “have greatly lowered the chances of unauthorized cockpit access.” The proposed budget also cuts Federal Air Marshal Service funds almost 4%, to $927 million. It is unclear whether that cut will result in fewer air marshals. The number of air marshals is classified. The $36.5 million budget cut for the air marshals reflects “efficiencies and program changes that leverage other aviation security system enhancements, allowing for more efficient mission deployments focused on high-risk flights,” according to the Department of Homeland Security. A current flight deck officer, contact by CNN, called cuts to the FFDO program “very surprising.” “I think that this is just another example of essentially TSA (Transportation Security Administration) and DHS mismanaging a highly efficient program, that operates on cents on the dollar compared to (air marshals),” said the pilot, who spoke on condition that he not be named. The program prohibits pilots from identifying themselves as FFDOs for security reasons. The flight deck officer said he believes the cuts will result in fewer flights being covered by armed officers. “You’re cutting the feet off the (FFDO) program,” said Mark Weiss, a former pilot who served as deputy chairman of security for the Allied Pilots Association, the bargaining unit for American Airlines. “It’s extremely shortsighted.” Weiss, now with the Spectrum Group in Washington, said the government is sending a “very clear message” to armed pilots that they are not valued. “It’s probably (a message) that they’re very appreciative of hearing in terrorist camps around the world,” he added. Like the federal air marshal program, the FFDO program has been marred by occasional mishaps. An FFDO pilot was removed from the program, and his airline, after he accidentally discharged his gun in the cockpit. No one was injured.
The reason this story caught my eye was the Air Marshal program. A billion dollar boondoogle of TSA waste? Or real security? After all, the gist of the program is the unknown. A potential terrorist doesn’t know if a particular flight is manned with an Air Marshal or not thus serving as a deterrent. We don’t know the exact number of Air Marshalls in the program, but we can make some educated guesses based upon statements and public information.
According to the story, the program budget is facing a cut of nearly 4% meaning it currently has an approximately $960 million dollar budget. The story also claims a cost of $3,000 per Air Marshal. Obviously the budget includes the entire department and not just the Air Marshals which is the whole point of this post. How much of the nearly billion dollar budget actually goes toward Air Marshals in flight? Most sources will cite a number of 3-4,000 Air Marshals. The TSA just quotes a number in the “thousands”. Many news reports also speculate that less than 1% of flights are covered with many pilots stating they never see an Air Marshal. This is only rational as one would not expect an Air Marshal on a short hop from rural city “A” to rural city “B”. Nothing wrong with prioritizing threats and responding accordingly. BTW, as a former TSA screener myself, it is obvious when an Air Marshal boards a flight when you know what to look for, so the pilots assertions are credible.
We do know that there are around 10 million flight segments annually in the U.S., with a segment defined as a takeoff and landing. We don’t know all of the ancillary costs of the program, infrastructure costs, the 21 field offices etc., so we can only work with the $3,000 estimate. Divide that into the total $960 million dollar budget and we get 3,200 Air Marshals. Clearly, it is less than that as we don’t know what portion of the budget goes toward Air Marshal salaries. They also work in teams meaning a minimum of two per flight. They also aren’t robots capable of working 24/7/365. They take vacations and have regular time off and get sick. So how many can be available at any given time?
Well, 10 million flight segments annually translates to 27,397 per day. The TSA also assigns Air Marshals to Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) teams, which are ground based, so less potential in-flight Air Marshals are available. As you can see, the number is shrinking by the moment. Take 3,200 Air Marshals and divide by 2 for the team deployments. Take 1,600 teams and account for time off and other availability factors. Is it unreasonable to assume a maximum of 1,000 teams available on any given day given all factors? I suspect it’s actually much less considering the unknown budget factors. Perhaps a few hundred teams on any given day is likely. Remember, previous to 9/11 this was staffed by 33 Air Marshals. Total. For the entire U.S. Commercial airline industry.
9/11 wasn’t a failure of the Air Marshal program. It was an intelligence failure (not going into the conspiracy theories, not relevant to this post). In fact, Flight 93 that ended in Shanksville, PA had an armed law enforcement officer on-board, however they were required to stow their weapon in the belly of the plane. That may have had a decidedly different outcome.
The crux of the issue is the nearly billion dollars we the taxpayer are shelling out for Air Marshals. For $25 million, we have armed pilots behind reinforced cockpit doors. Why cut that budget in half? It’s paltry compared to the Air Marshals budget. It’s likely only a few hundred flight segments each day have an Air Marshal team aboard. The chances of a terrorist gaining access to the cockpit is greatly diminished and, as we’ve seen repeatedly since 9/11, should a terrorist attempt to ignite an explosive in the passenger cabin, they are going to be ambushed by other passengers anyway, so is there even a need for Air Marshals any longer? At least not to the point of a billion dollar budget. So you say what’s a billion in our trillion-dollar plus annual deficit? Not much, but it’s the type of scrutiny we need to put all programs under in our out of control federal budget.