Aviation Security

Aviation Security

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There are 5 broad question sets that need to be answered.

The Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) has been around in some form since
1968. It was originally called the Sky Marshal Program and was under the authority of
the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The program was never very large and at
times has consisted of only a handful of agents. The overall mission has changed from
time to time but after 1985 missions were primarily conducted on aircraft heading to and
returning from overseas locations. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 the
program expanded tremendously almost overnight. It was one of the fastest and largest
federal government agency expansions in history. Currently the FAMS has an annual
budget of over $950 Million. The program was eventually shifted to the Transportation
Security Administration (TSA) where it remains today, which is under the Department of
Homeland Security (DHS). The total number of Federal Air Marshals is classified but it
is rumored to be in the thousands. Even with thousands of agents, it is only possible to
cover but a very small proportion of all commercial aviation flights daily. It has been
reported that less than 1% of flights over the United States everyday have an Air Marshal
on board, since there are around 30,000 commercial aircraft flights over the United States
daily. Certain aircraft have high priority in being covered by FAM’s. Federal Air
Marshals undergo extensive training and have the highest firearms qualification standards
in the federal government.
In the past, aircraft hijackings were actually quite common worldwide. They
occurred much less frequently nationally but they still happened from time to time. They
rarely ended violently though. Usually the motives of hijackers were political or
financial. They often demanded to be flown to a remote location and made negotiations
with authorities. September 11th 2001 changed everything. We were not expecting such
bold suicidal acts by hijackers. Luckily there have been no aviation hijacking attempts
over US soil since 9-11. In recent years terrorists have attempted to use improvised
explosive devices to blow up aircraft in midflight. The Bojinka Plot alone was designed
to bring down 12 US bound flights in 1995. Richard Reid, also known as the Shoe
Bomber, attempted to explode a bomb hidden in his shoes aboard an aircraft over the
United States on December 22, 2001. The 2006 Transatlantic Aircraft Plot, also known as
the Sports Drink Suicide Airline Bomb Plot of 2006 in the United Kingdom could have
taken out 7 aircraft headed for the US with improvised explosive devices. Umar Farouk
Abdulmutallab successfully detonated a PETN based explosive device hidden in his
underwear aboard Northwest Airlines Flight # 253 over Detroit Michigan on Christmas
day in 2009. Luckily the aircraft was able to land. The Yemen Cargo Planes Bomb Plot
of 2010 was an attempt to blow up aircraft over the United States using timed explosives
hidden in computer printer toner cartridges. It appears that terrorists are shifting towards
using explosive devices smuggled onboard aircraft. Federal Air Marshal training has
largely stayed unchanged. They are still primarily trained as defending against terrorist
The Federal Flight Deck Officer (FFDO) program allows for certain trained pilots
and copilots to carry firearms in the locked cockpit of the aircraft during flight. This was
seen as a last line of defense against a terrorist hijacking. It has been rumored that there
may actually be more FFDO’s than FAM’s nationwide. In addition, thousands of civilian
law enforcement officers travel on aircraft with their service weapons daily. All off duty
officers carrying loaded weapons must first pass a training class in order to board with
their weapon. This is seen as an augmentation to the overall protection of the civil
aviation system.

1) Given that terrorists constantly change their tactics, is the Federal Air Marshal Service
no longer relevant? Looking back at history, how likely is there to be another attempted
or successful hijacking that threatens US soil? How successful were the hijackings of
September 11th for Al Qaeda? Could this success be reason enough for Al Qaeda to try
again in the future?

2) Should the mission of the Federal Marshal Service be modified to keep up with the
current threats posed by terrorists? How could their mission and tactics be changed to
prevent the detonation of an improvised explosive device in midflight? How important is
the gathering, deciphering and dissemination of intelligence to the Federal Air Marshal

3) Is the Federal Air Marshal Service even worth continuing given its cost? Has the
Federal Air Marshal Service likely acted as a deterrent to terrorists and prevented them
from even attempting another September 11th style attack?

4) Has the Federal Flight Deck Officer program nullified the overall mission of the
Federal Air Marshal Service, or has it further strengthened it? How important is secrecy
to the Federal Air Marshal Service?

5) What are some alternatives to having Federal Air Marshals aboard commercial aircraft
to prevent hijackings? The reinforced cockpit door was one alternative; what are some
other potential alternatives?