Federal Air Marshals – Reliability = 2%
Very few people understand how truly massive the U.S. air transportation system is. The U.S. commercial air fleet numbers some 6000 airliners and the number of flights each day varies seasonally between 27,000 and 30,000. This year, roughly 700 million passengers will travel in our air transportation system, and the number is expected to reach 1 billion, by 2012.
On the morning September 11th, there were only 33 air marshals to protect 600 million passengers. The program was dramatically ramped up after the attacks, eventually achieving a reported staffing level of roughly 4000 air marshals, working in teams of at least two. But, even this level of staffing could not protect more than a fraction of commercial domestic and international flights in the United States.
Some other federal agencies’ officers were given cursory training to augment the federal air marshal corps when activated in high threat conditions, but the number of dedicated federal air marshals covering our air transportation system today has now dwindled to a coverage level of only 1-2%, according to press reports, and airliners rely more and more on armed pilots, whose numbers are much higher, but still insufficient to provide a level of protection that inspires confidence.
Air marshals complain of overwork due to low staffing and boarding procedures that make them easily identifiable to terrorists.
But, in the end, the greatest obstacle to the robustness of the air marshal program is simply the size of the system they are sworn to protect. Given an annual budget of roughly $700 million to maintain the present force, it would cost more than $13 billion per year to put a team of air marshals on every commercial flight and take a force the size of the U.S. Coast Guard. It will never happen.
The Federal Flight Deck Officer Program and the Federal Air Marshal Program must be complimentary to each other, since FFDO’s will only take action if the flight deck is breached. Federal Air Marshals protect the passenger cabin AND the flight deck, allowing the pilots to perform their primary responsibility of landing the aircraft in an emergency.
But, given the difficulty in deploying sufficient air marshals to protect more than the smallest fraction of flights, it is difficult to imagine that air marshals will be able to prevent another 9/11, particularly as we expect multiple flights to be targeted.