Federal air marshals protect less than 5 percent of daily U.S. flights, and the numbers are declining, despite assurances by the federal government that most planes would be protected, according to estimates provided by marshals, pilots and a retired airline executive.
“They are flying on a relatively limited number of flights due to availability,” said Capt. Stephen Luckey, chairman of the national-security committee of the Air Lines Pilots Association, which represents 64,000 pilots.
The number of federal air marshals who protect planes from terrorist attacks is classified, and the Department of Homeland Security has refused to discuss it.
The sources said they are confident that terrorists already know the numbers based on open-source documents that can be found on the Internet, ongoing surveillance in airports and aboard planes, and in news reports.
At their request, information about specific flights or airports has been withheld.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the marshals, pilots and retired executive say there are fewer than 3,500 air marshals to protect 35,000 daily flights. Taking into consideration time off for sick leave, vacation and training, the sources say only 500 to 1,000 flights per day are protected.
Daily flights average 35,000 in the summer and 25,000 in the winter. Some pilots and flight attendants say they rarely see marshals on board.
“What good is it if [marshals] are only on 1 percent of the flights?” said a federal air marshal.
Marshals, pilots and flight attendants say ongoing surveillance, combined with a mandatory dress code, makes the armed officials obvious to the flying public and to terrorists. Marshals also must show identification to the flight crew and board the plane even before first-class passengers and handicapped, further compromising their undercover status.
Valerie Mellon, a frequent flier from Pennsylvania who logs 80,000 miles a year, said she thought federal air marshals protect about 25 percent of flights and says she is “disappointed and scared” that the numbers are much lower.
Charles Serwin of New Jersey said he thought 50 percent of flights are protected.
“The government and the media make the public feel that all flights are carrying air marshals,” Mr. Serwin said.
“I believe that it is pathetic,” he said of the lower numbers.
After the September 11 terrorist attacks, members of Congress demanded that the Federal Air Marshal Service, with a mere 33 plainclothes officers, protect all airplanes in the United States.
“We expect before this is over, there will be two marshals on every airplane,” said Rep. Don Young, Alaska Republican and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee just days after the attack.View Entire Story
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