TSA develops new plan to fill thinning ranks of air marshals

 - September 28, 2006, 11:59 AM

Perhaps one of the least appreciated benefits of corporate aviation is that its pilots and their passengers don’t have to endure the security procedures of crowded airport terminals. But the security hassles at the airport are the least of the concerns afflicting the senior managers at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

One of their major headaches today is replacing the large number of federal air marshals who have either resigned or transferred to other government agencies. Although the actual number of federal air marshals is classified information, it has been reported that there are now some 2,000 federal air marshals, down from well over 3,000 reported in the past.

In January the TSA announced its solution to the problem of finding more federal air marshals. In an internal staff memorandum, the agency invited screeners and other personnel to apply for jobs as federal air marshals. The announcement did not spell out the qualifications required, but some close observers of the TSA scene question how successful this program will be, wondering particularly about the law enforcement background of the applicants.

Outcome Uncertain
One ALPA member told AIN, “Most of us supported the federal flight deck officer program [which allows pilots to carry guns in the cockpit–Ed.] when it was introduced, but a lot of us became disillusioned when pilots with strong, and sometimes distinguished, law enforcement backgrounds were judged unsuitable to carry a weapon. So how many marshals do you think the TSA will get from this scheme?”

Separately, AIN was informed that pilots who told TSA psychologists that one of their early ambitions was to fly fighters were judged to be potentially unstable and dropped from the program.

Perhaps unfairly, TSA screeners have been generally characterized as not particularly highly skilled individuals. Possibly this is due to cases such as the recently reported incident in which an employee at a security checkpoint noticed a 50-year-old “student” of Middle East extraction wearing shoes apparently held together with string and rubber bands.

The shoes showed indications of explosive residue and were confiscated, but the man proceeded to his flight in socks. FBI agents arriving to investigate asked for a photograph of the man, but he hadn’t been photographed. However, the security staff had an excellent picture of his shoes.

Civil liberty groups have also expressed concerns about the TSA’s introduction of a new screener surveillance concept called Spot–for screening passengers by observation techniques. Now employed at Boston Logan and Minneapolis/St. Paul and to be expanded nationwide, Spot requires screeners to monitor passengers visually for “anxious, frightened or deceptive behavior.”

Travelers who arouse suspicion will be questioned and their responses scored against a secret behavior profile. Those who receive a high score will be referred to the airport police. Plain-clothes screeners will also mix with travelers moving between terminal entrances, airline counters and screening stations.

The TSA has a large investment to protect. In a January report, the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General noted that the 16-month screener recruitment drive, initially estimated to cost some $104 million, cost $741 million to hire 56,000 screeners from 328,000 applicants.