NEW YORK – American Airlines on Wednesday vigorously denied a report charging it wasn't cooperating with the federal air marshal program and was more concerned with appeasing high-paying passengers than following safety guidelines.
A USA Today report that an American employee said the carrier "was growing tired of air marshals taking high-revenue seats" and denied marshals a first-class seat — as required by law — created a "distorted impression of the airline's commitment to safety," according to a press release issued by the airline.
The American statement blamed the marshals' travel agency for the mix-up, and claimed the two marshals had mistakenly been booked in economy class in the Feb. 20 incident. And because first class was full when the marshals showed up for the flight 35 minutes before departure, the statement insisted, the two were seated at the front of economy class.
"We think it is unfortunate that the air marshals were booked into the wrong seats by their agency, but American did everything possible to accommodate them in seats near the front of the cabin — in fact, rows 9 and 10 on the aisle."
But while the airline said it was acceptable to seat the marshals "near" first class, federal law says otherwise.
"Each Federal Air Marshal shall be carried on a first-priority basis and without charge while on official duty, including repositioning flights," the guidelines state. "Each certificate holder shall assign the specific seat requested by a Federal Air Marshal who is on official duty."
The newly formed Transportation Security Administration, which operates the marshal program and is "putting itself together and gradually taking over security functions," according to a spokesman, clammed up Wednesday and declined to comment on the incident.
"I have no knowledge of the report other than what USA Today reported," TSA spokesman Paul Turk said.
The newspaper report, which said the incident occurred during a flight from Palm Springs, Calif., that traveled through Dallas on its way to Charlotte, N.C., also charged one of the marshals' most valuable weapons — anonymity — was lost when they were identified by another airline employee who said in front of passengers, "These air marshals have been a nuisance all week."
An official for the Airline Pilot's Association also declined to comment on the specifics of the USA Today report, but expressed concern any airline worker might compromise the marshals' work.
"To say anything that would reveal the location and presence of an air marshal does seriously compromise their ability to do the job," said spokesman John Mazor. "They may have a specific location that they want to protect the airplane from and if they can’t get that the air marshal is going to feel they can’t do as effective job as possible."
According to USA Today, the gate agent in question "stated that she did not want to reposition passengers" to seat the marshals in first class. The federal rule regarding seating marshals was "not American Airlines' policy" and the airline "had no intention of complying with that regulation," another employee of the airline reportedly said.
A spokesperson for the Association of Flight Attendants agreed safety should come first. "The more [air marshals] the better is our perspective," she said.
Sherman Pang, an internal auditor in New York City who frequently flies business class, said he would not mind being moved from one seat to another in business class.
"But if I got bumped to economy or to a middle seat then I would be peeved," said Pang. "It definitely makes me feel safer if a marshal is on board. But the airline has to compensate the passenger for any inconvenience made."
The American statement pledged the airline "will work more closely in the future with the air marshals program to ensure that their agency books them in the proper seats."
But just days before the airline seemed a bit more concerned with keeping passengers like Pang comfortable — and flying American — than safe.
"The airlines are desperately trying to win back the business traveler," American Airlines spokesman John Hotard told USA Today. "So when an airline gets these customers back, they want to treat them well. Displacing our frequent fliers from first class ... flies in the face of that."