New TSA Program Assigns Americans Personal Air Marshals Who Report Back if They Board Last or Sleep

The Federal Air Marshal Service is arguably the least competent law enforcement agency in the country. Naturally they are part of the TSA, which reportedly has a program to make sure air marshals don’t show up to the airport drunk.

No air marshal has ever stopped a terrorist or hijacker since the service was founded in 1962. Although an air marshal did shoot and kill a US citizen in 2005. If something really bad did happen on a flight and an air marshal was onboard they lack the training to do anything about it.

    Liam Neeson Was an Air Marshal in the 2014 film “Non-Stop”

Last year an air marshal left a loaded gun in the lavatory of a Delta flight. Three years ago an air marshal left a loaded gun in a Newark airport bathroom and two years ago in a Philadelphia airport restroom. In 2001 an air marshal left a handgun in an aircraft lavatory where it was found by a teenager.

Two and a half years ago an air marshal sued for being denied his first choice of meal in first class and because a flight attendant spilled a drink on him. He approached the cockpit to report these incidents to the captain — and threatened the pilot.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Air marshals have smuggled cocaine, engaged in sex trafficking, and discharged their weapons in hotels and bars. We spend $200 million per arrest on the air marshal program. And to be clear that is not $200 million per arrest of a terror suspect, most are just passengers behaving badly.

Combining their penchant for both abuse of power and incompetence, the Boston Globe reports on an air marshal program to engage in traveler surveillance. The program launched in March and is called “Quiet Skies” and “gives the agency broad discretion over which air travelers to focus on and how closely they are tracked.”

Federal air marshals have begun following ordinary US citizens not suspected of a crime or on any terrorist watch list and collecting extensive information about their movements and behavior under a new domestic surveillance program that is drawing criticism from within the agency.

If you’ve traveled to the Mideast you may be surveilled in the airport. Passengers who “fidget, use a computer, have a “jump” in their Adam’s apple” have their activities recorded minute-by-minute during travel, with observations by armed undercover agents sent back to TSA. (Read a program bulletin, marked SSI, here .pdf)

The Quiet Skies behavior list includes whether a subject is “abnormally aware of surroundings” such as observing boarding gate from afar, looking at reflection in storefront windows, boarding last, changing clothes or shaving in the airport or on a plane (better not use airline pajamas!). They record whether or not you sleep on the plane.

When the air marshals decide to surveil you, you get air marshals on your next flight. They “receive[..] a file containing a photo and basic information — such as date and place of birth” and they’ll be “taking notes on whether travelers use a phone, go to the bathroom, chat with others, or change clothes.”

There are legal questions raised by surveillance of Americans not suspected of any wrongdoing. About 35 passengers a day are tracked under this program. Responding to questions about legality of the program, TSA says they brief Congress to ensure political support.

(HT: Shane S., Robert W. and a reader who asked not to be named.)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Let’s throw more money at the Federal Air Marshal Service.

    Isn’t that the way politicians like to fix any problem?

  2. In Iran, the air marshal sits in the jump seat sternly facing passengers. Everyone knows who he is, and no one dares to mess with him.

  3. Gary:
    I am wondering whether even more guns will be found in newly “remodeled” tiny AA bathroom on B737Max.

  4. Your blog is crapyl. All u do is write crap. You’re like someone who always complains about stuff but never offers solutions. No wonder Ben gets comments and you don’.

  5. Jr

    I read both but my personal impression is that news tends to appear here first. I think the reason Ben has a more active following is his investment in trip reports

  6. The problem with air marshalls is that the prevalence of hijackings are next to nothing/never. Even the TSA airport checkpoints come across a more common and daily problem, that of people forgetting (or on purpose) and bringing guns.

    An air marshall active needed intervention is less than a breast mammogram for breast cancer. It is a little more common than if air marshalls were looking for lost film cameras in seat back pockets.

    I like security but the air marshall program is a waste. It would be better spent if two flight attendants per flight are given special training in restraining a passenger. The number of flights with hijackers is extremely small and maybe less than one serious incident per year.

  7. For a guy who doesn’t seem to like the TSA very much, Mr. Leff sure spends quite a bit of time writing about them. Free advertisement I guess…

  8. Jr aka Bob actually I do offer solutions… although in the case of this issue it’s so simple and obvious other comments manage to understand the solution is to “not do this.”

  9. Makes me wonder how many times I’ve been watched. This of us who routinely travel by air have long since lost any signs of being a newbie. I’m fine with security too, even if they want to watch ME, but let’s put resources where they’re really needed.

  10. There is no perfect agency, professional in any field, cop, fireman, doctor, nurse, business man, lawyer or any large group of workers. Put all your career choices as a response to this comment and If I can’t find multiple stories of wrong doing, incompetence, dumb mistakes in your employment field I will write a personal apology to you. I am a cop. We are not a perfect bunch of professionals and neither are the other people within your profession. This article is a smere campaign plain and simple. Written to get you to read it and see some advertising. Read the authors expertise, it has nothing to do with law enforcement, security, anti terrorism or Homeland security. Classic case of an idiot who never risked his life for you telling you how terrible “other” people who risk their life for you are. Stick to points and frequent flyer miles Mr. Leff.

  11. Gary gives More News. Ben just does millennial stuff. Bens trip reports made me like his page. His insistence on dragging out trip reports publlication while rehashing lounge reviews to provide content for contents sake have turned me off omaat

  12. E.g., on Bens current TR series the last update cake a week back. In the meantime he shares fluffy OMG type headlines.
    One would think that Ben, who talks a good talk on customer service would know how to keep us, his customers satisfied. Sadly, all we are to Ben is a revenue stream. See the way he links the credit card he’s pushing in an article in practically every paragraph. (As seen in an article on the citi as advantage master card)

  13. @Jr (aka Bob)

    Hello, in the past week, I’ve seen Gary’s columns/blog posts mentioned in others’ newspaper and magazine articles a few times – just as his columns/blog posts typically are week in and week out. (All of the best known and most respected names in media, too).

    And he’s often quoted in others’ newspaper and magazine columns, too! (All of the best known and most respected names in media that any of us would be more than honored and proud of to see our names mentioned in, too).

    When your work is the inspiration for others’ articles and columns (as Gary’s is) and/or you’re the person being interviewed/providing expert commentary/analysis (as Gary often is, too) that speak volumes about what your peers (and other readers, too) think of you.

    Indeed, if that alone isn’t testament to the credibility and quality of his journalism, and the calibre/quality of the information available here, all of which, btw, is FOR FREE, courtesy of the advertisers (mostly credit card issuers and banks who have certainly been more than fair in allowing him and readers such as you, myself, and many others to express opinions freely as long as they don’t violate user agreements for profanity and advertising), then nothing is.

    Oh, did I forget to mention Gary appears on tv, too? And he’s a featured/headline speaker/expert panelist at many conferences around the world, just to name a few of his many accomplishments covering the airlines, hotels travel, tourism – and nifty tips on how to make the most of one’s frequent flyer miles and credit card award points!

    As Wendy Williams would say, @Jr (aka Bob), “How YOU doin’?”

    Happy Monday!

  14. Mr. Leff,
    The fact that you’re a so called expert on travel, certainly doesn’t make you an expert on aviation security. The poor choices of a few do not define an agency or an employee of that agency as a whole. Get your facts in order, before you decide to criticize.

  15. @John Smith – the air marshal service is a joke in the security community.

    What facts do you think are mistaken in this post?

  16. Jr I don’t know who Ben is but variety is the spice of life, is it not? Some may enjoy “Ben” and some may not. I enjoyed this article. If you’d rather read what “Ben” has to write, then go find “Ben”. Simple solution!

  17. I think the federal government has many ways to blow our tax money, and the air marshal program is just one. If you look at all the government agencies in this country, many of which do the same thing, you’d want to vomit A Democrat Senator (not ones that usually want to save tax dollars) suggested that if 1/2 the federal agencies were eliminated services would not be lost, as a matter of fact the government would become more efficient. He then went on to list five agencies that do similar things. And from what I’ve read the FBI and CIA not only don’t cooperate they are competitive. People want to stop gun violence by passing a law outlawing them…. that worked great for Drugs. I think there would be less problems with drugs if we just killed all the laws that govern drugs and let people buy what ever they want. Take the money saved and use it for rehabilitation of those that want it.

    As to the appropriateness of the article that Gary printed, I think he’s spot on!

  18. You don’t know dick about the FAM Service. Why don’t you act like a fool on a flight and see how incompetent they are for yourself.

  19. A FAM once told me (jokingly) that in the event of an attempted hijacking he’d hide in the lav and come out after the passengers had beaten the bad guy/s to death. It’s also worth noting that the Air Marshals abandoned their formerly extremely high firearms training standards when the TSA took over. As for the comment: “Why don’t you act like a fool on a flight and see how incompetent they are for yourself” the Air Marshal’s aren’t there to control unruly passengers. “Acting like a fool” is a technique a hijacker would use to “out” the Air Marshal and make him/her the first target.

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