POSTSCRIPT: Since this article was published, we’ve heard from Thomas H. Kelly, Jr., spokesperson for the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS). He says, in part:
“TSA and the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) appreciate the story that you published in the Examiner on 11/19/2015, however, we would like to clarify something. You pointed out that the FAMS have a high mortality rate due to blood clots and strokes. This is inaccurate, we have never lost a FAM due to a blood clot or stroke. Additionally, you noted that we have a high turnover rate. The attrition rate for the FAMS is comparable to other federal law enforcement agencies.”
Thanksgiving week is, undoubtedly, the biggest travel week of the year; according to the Automobile Association of America (AAA), in 2015, 46.9 million Americans are expected to travel more than 50 miles away from home during that week, with a lot of that travel being done by airplane. After recent events in Paris and elsewhere, though, many are rethinking their travel plans, opting to travel by car or stay home. If you’ve decided to keep your plans to travel by plane, though, you have a hidden ace in your pocket: the Federal Air Marshals traveling with you.
Never heard of the Federal Air Marshals? Good; they prefer it that way. The Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS), as well as all other federal law enforcement agencies, are extremely secretive and with good reason. It’s a very dangerous place out there. There are surprisingly bad things going on in every airport around the country, on every flight that leaves the ground. If we truly knew what’s going on in the skies above our heads, we’d never fly again. Thank goodness for the spies in the sky.
Air marshals are a fascinating group of men and women who have dedicated their lives to making sure we’re all safe when we get on a plane. FAMS was established long before 9/11; they’ve been part of federal law enforcement since the early 1970s when people were hijacking planes to Cuba. Pre-9/11, they were limited in number mainly through budget cuts.
Then came the World Trade Center collapse and the attack on the Pentagon. Funding came in buckets and thousands were hired because suddenly there was a need. No one will say exactly how many FAMS agents there are, but if you’re flying, chances are there’s a marshal on your flight. You’ll never know who they are unless something happens on your flight and boy, are you glad they’re there.
There is no “average” air marshal. Male and female, every age demographic, they’re there. The only commonality is that they’re extremely well trained, overworked and underpaid. For safety reasons, airline pilots and flight attendants have a limit on the number of hours they can be in the air; air marshals don’t. They work six days a week, often flying five of those six days. Most then work the seventh day of the week just to complete paperwork. They work out every day; most are extremely buff under those clothes. While they’re flying, they must be vigilant; imagine a flight from Kansas City to London and not being able to sleep or relax.
Most air marshals have a military background, for obvious reasons. Being able to keep calm and quickly assess a dangerous situation, devise a solution and execute without harm coming to anyone else is a hallmark of their training. The turnover and mortality rates of FAMS agents are high, mostly from blood clots and strokes. Compared to other federal and state government workers, they are not paid overtime for days that last, often 24 straight hours. They aren’t allowed to travel by plane “off the clock;” if they’re on a plane, even traveling with their families, they are on duty, no questions asked.
Like most first responders, air marshals do their jobs because they are dedicated to helping others; they lay their lives on the line every day for all of us, but they never wear a uniform while on duty. You’ll never know if, when or who an air marshal is on your flight. There’s no air marshal appreciation day, so let’s say thank you to all those hard-working men and women of the Federal Air Marshal Service for their long hours of putting their lives at risk just so we can travel safely.
Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at some things you can do to keep yourself safe while traveling over the upcoming holidays.