How Obvious Are Air Marshals to Passengers?

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," Dec. 22, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

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JOHN GIBSON, HOST: Federal air marshals keeping an eye on the skies as holiday travelers flock to airports around the country. Industry observers say Thanksgiving weekend was the first time travel numbers reached or surpassed pre-9/11 figures. The same is expected to hold true for Christmas and New Year's.

Joining me now is Dave Adams, spokesman for the Federal Air Marshals Service.

So Dave, it was probably a week ago we talked to a friend of this network, somebody who appears a lot, Michelle Malkin (search), the columnist. And she said there was a lot of complaining in the air marshal service about the boss, I think his name is Mr. Quinn, who has imposed a suit-and-tie rule on the air marshals, and the air marshals think that they stand out like sore thumbs. What about all that?

And the dress code policy does not require our workforce to wear coat and ties or business suits. I read Michelle Malkin's article. I have also read the recent article in The Washington Times written... and both of these articles express inaccurate information.

GIBSON: What is inaccurate?

ADAMS: Well, what is inaccurate is the fact that they are not to wear coats and ties. And our dress codes were developed with two objectives in mind. First, we want to give our federal air marshals the ability to blend in with their environment by several clothing options, but also not to bring undue attention to themselves. And second of all, we want them to present a professional image that projects confidence with the airline industry, the flight crews, and passengers if an emergency occurs at 30,000 feet.. That is extremely important.

GIBSON: OK. The last thing you're talking about is the guy that jumps up with a gun all of a sudden, you want passengers to say, Oh, there's an air marshal, he's on our side, not, Uh-oh, who's that?

But apparently what the air marshals were complaining about, at least as reported by Michelle, is a dress code that winds up being a kill-me-first policy. That is, that they stand out so obviously as the air marshal that the hijacker would know, go up to the marshal first.

ADAMS: Well, John, that's totally false. I mean, I've had air marshals tell me that they've actually been in conversation with passengers, asking them whether or not a federal air marshal was on the flight or whether or not there was actually a program, when they were, in fact, talking to one.

And it's all about blending in. It's your attire and your attitude and how you act. It's not just the clothing that makes them aware. And we teach this at the academy, how to blend in every day, and we even reinforce this during our recurrent training at the field offices.

GIBSON: Do air marshals board the flight first, before anybody else?

ADAMS: Well, we have various ways to board federal air marshals… the number one priority with the director, and it continues to be today, is to get [the air marshals] on the plane, undetected, so they can do their job.

GIBSON: So how many — is an air marshal on every flight?

ADAMS: Well, we don't — can't have air marshals on every flight. There are 27,000 flights a year, flying over 400 airports in the United States...

GIBSON: A day.

ADAMS: A day.


ADAMS: But we have targeted critical flights that we put our air marshals on, and there's a very good chance during this holiday season many of your viewers might possibly be sitting next to a federal air marshal and they don't even know it.

GIBSON: Now, the, I think the other people that people are concerned about is whether or not your service feels like you have enough air marshals, that you have enough training, that you are covering enough of those 27,000 flights, that flying has returned to the safety we thought we had before 9/11.

ADAMS: Well, I think it has. You know, prior to 9/11, we had only 33 federal air marshals. Since 9/11, we have, we had over two one thousand applications, we have thousands and thousands of federal air marshals flying today, working out of 21 field offices strategically located around the United States. And the federal air marshals are flying more missions in one month than the whole accumulative time of the sky marshal program since 1965.

GIBSON: You know, Mr. Adams, I fly a lot, and I see a lot of people in suits, business people travel in suits all the time. I would imagine that air marshals would want to look like some of them from time to time.

ADAMS: Oh, yes. We want them to vary their appearance and their attire. And quite honestly, a lot of people seem to think they have seen a federal air marshal on a flight when they really haven't. So we'd like the people to be out there and looking around and guessing whether or not a FAMILIAR is on a flight. But again, they're very well, you know, fit into the environment, and they — I'm sure that people think they see them and they actually are not FAMs.

GIBSON: All right, Dave Adams, spokesperson for the Federal Air Marshals Service. FAMs, who are on the airplanes. Mr. Adams, thanks very much for coming in. Appreciate it.

ADAMS: Thank you, and happy holidays.

GIBSON: All right. Same to you.

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