Air Marshals

I have been in the interesting position of going to both the US and Israeli air marshal schools, not as a student but as a member of the team sent by the Australian Government to assess the training provided. It was not long after September 11 and other countries also sent teams to look at these organisations, especially Israel’s program. We met up with teams from Europe and Asia, so I got quite a cross section of the air marshal community. Our hosts were more than happy to show off their programs and facilities. I am not going to give any confidential information, but I want to discuss the effectiveness of air marshal programs.

On 11 June 1985, Fawaz Younis, a Shiite Muslim, hijacked Royal Jordanian Airlines Flight 402 at Beirut Airport. In 1985, the presence of Palestinians in Lebanon was the cause of some tension. At a meeting in Tunis that week, the Arab League passed a resolution calling for a ceasefire in and around Palestinian districts besieged by Shiite militiamen on the outskirts of Beirut and for the withdrawal of the Shiites. In protest, Younis intended to fly the aircraft to Tunis, but the Tunisian authorities refused permission to land and the aircraft eventually returned to Beirut where the terrorists released the passengers and destroyed the aircraft.

So, why is this an interesting incident in a discussion about air marshals? I cannot recall the number of Jordanian air marshals on the aircraft, but I think there were about eight of them. They were quickly identified, captured and tortured to surrender the location of automatic weapons onboard the aircraft.

Another incident of interest is El Al Flight 219 from Schiphol to New York on 6 September 1970. That aircraft had armed Israeli security officers on board and an ‘interesting’ aircraft captain, Uri Bar-Lev. Israeli airport security were suspicious of four passengers – two Senegalese and two Honduran. The two Senegalese were barred from the aircraft and the two Honduran were to be subjected to additional inspection, but that did not happen. Captain Bar-Lev was still suspicious and told one of the security officers that he wanted him on the flight deck rather than sitting in first class. The security officer objected that this was contrary to normal operating procedures, or maybe he was not keen on giving up his comfy seat for an uncomfortable jump seat. As the aircraft climbed from Schiphol, the Honduran passengers, armed with hand grenades and a pistol, demanded access to the flight deck. Standard procedure for most airlines at that time was to obey hijackers so that the pilot did not further endanger the passengers. As I said, Captain Bar-Lev was an interesting captain and he decided that he would not let his aircraft be taken, so he told the security officer to strap himself in and put the aircraft into a negative g dive and, when he pulled out of the dive, the security officer rushed into the main cabin, killed the terrorist with the handgun and arrested the other – Leila Khaled, a famous Palestinian terrorist, who had passed out. Unfortunately, the head flight attendant had charged the hijackers and been shot multiple times. Captain Bar-Lev then disobeyed instructions from Israel and took his aircraft to London to save the life of his flight attendant. Captain Bar-Lev was censured on his return to Israel – apart from diverging from standard operating procedures (SOPs) and disobeying a direct order from Israeli authorities, his diversion to London meant that a very high-value terrorist was surrendered to the UK authorities and they released her within days as part of their own hostage negotiations.

Again, reasonably interesting story and, on the face of it, a successful air marshal operation. However, if you think about it, the air marshal was incidental to the success of the operation. It is arguable that Captain Bar-Lev would have been successful even if no security officers were present.

Why pick incidents that happened so long ago as examples? To be honest, it is because there have not been many worthy examples since then – and that is not because of successful air marshal programs. You could argue that Israel’s program is successful, but there is no evidence that others are. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) say that within the US there are about 5,000 aircraft in the sky at any given time and an average of 42,700 flights handled per day. I would suggest that between a third and half of those flights are US registered and not all are passenger aircraft but, even so, it is rather a large number. At a guess, it would be between 5,000 and 10,000 each day and that does not include US-registered aircraft outside of the US.

So, should there be a federal air marshal (FAM) on each of those aircraft? Well, no. There are about 4,000 FAMs and, according to open source information, they operate in teams of two to four, so at best I would suggest that, within the US, they could only cover a few hundred flights each day.

Even so, they make plenty of arrests? Well, no. On average, US FAMs make a little over four arrests each year – that is not each FAM makes four arrests; combined they only make four arrests!

Stopping four terrorist attacks each year is not bad? Well, no. Most of the people arrested are unruly passengers and one wagindicated that there are more FAMs arrested each year for various offences. According to US Homeland Security, the only time FAMs have fired weapons was to shoot Rigoberto Alpizar, a Costa Rican born US citizen, in an aerobridge at Miami International Airport. The FAM agents said that Alpizar stated he was carrying a bomb and he was shot when he refused to put his bag down and made a movement towards it. Subsequently, no explosives were found.

Do other countries have successful air marshal programs? Well, no. There are professional, well-meaning air marshal programs, but I would argue they are not successful. There is not much in the way of publicly available information about any incidents involving air marshals, but you would expect that the involvement of air marshals would be included in court records and, given the interest in air marshals, any court attendances would be reported in the media – and those reports just do not exist.

None of this is to say that any air marshal is not well trained or professional. The training that I am aware of is very good. Israel’s training and processes especially are pragmatic, but are air marshals worth the effort? Well, no.

If you are an Israeli and your national airline only has about 44 aircraft, then yes, armed air marshals are worth the effort, but for others I am not so sure. I am of the school that says you should put all your efforts into not allowing weapons onto the aircraft. A report by the US Transport Security Administration (TSA) on 6 December 2017 indicated that the TSA, screening passengers nationwide, had found 3,733 guns this year, well above 2016’s total of 3,391.

Between 80 and 90 percent of those weapons were loaded and the most common excuse was, “Oops, I forgot it was in my bag.” My view is that taking a weapon on the aircraft is to provide a resource for potential terrorists (remember the Royal Jordanian example). But, I hear you say, “Training and procedures will mitigate that.” If training and SOPs were followed, I wonder how my second example, El Al, would have fared? Remember, I did not use the singular when I said there were armed security on the aircraft; there were two officers – one was at the rear of the aircraft and nothing much is mentioned about that officer. Yes, he was at the back of the aircraft and it went into a dive and from beginning to end the whole incident took about 2 minutes 30 seconds so, by the time he got to the front, the incident would have been over. But I think it would have been quite a different result if Captain Bar-Lev had not been so unorthodox.

But, air marshals fly under cover. Well, not really. Yes, passengers are not supposed to know, and some countries only tell the captain that there are armed security officers on the aircraft but do not provide any further information. For others, the security officers provide briefings to crew before they board. But many crew become quite good at picking out air marshals.

Then there is the terminal. When we left the US FAM school we were given quite a lot of souvenirs, including badges. We went to Washington and were to depart from there. My souvenirs, including the FAM badge, were in my carry-on baggage and a screening agent opened my bag, looked inside and quickly closed it. When I could not find my passport in my pocket and said to the other guy travelling with me that I could not find it, the screening agent, in a voice loud enough for those around me to hear, said, “It’s next to your piece!” Now apart from not carrying a ‘piece’, if I were trying to be covert that certainly ended!

I guess readers can tell by now that I am not a fan of air marshal programs. I am a fan of the people involved and their training, but I do not see it as either cost effective or operationally effective, although it is a nice policy concept that resonates with the public.

As a final observation, it is also the most boring job in the world!

Steve Lawson has over 20 years’ experience in aviation security.  As a Security Executive with Qantas Airways, Steve held a number of senior management roles covering all aspects of aviation security from policy development to airport operations.  He was sent to New York immediately following the 9/11 attacks to manage the Qantas response and undertook a similar role following the 2002 Bali Bombings. On his return to Australia, he was appointed Security Manager Freight for the Qantas Group. Since 2007 he has been a Director of AvSec Consulting in partnership with Bill Dent, a fellow former Qantas Security Exec. Today Avsec Consulting provides consultants from the US, NZ, ME, Israel and Europe.

Steve can be contacted on 0404685103 or

Steve Lawson
Steve Lawson has over 20 years’ experience in aviation security. He is a director of AvSec Consulting, which provides aviation consulting, along with tailored travel and security advice for individuals and organisations ( Steve can be contacted via email or on 0404685103.