Wednesday, December 8, 2004

A Thanksgiving Day morale booster for federal air marshals has instead turned into possible pink slips for air cops who ignore their strict dress code.

Thomas Quinn, director of the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS), paid a surprise visit to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on Thanksgiving to thank the law-enforcement officials for their holiday work. He reportedly was angered when nearly 30 marshals deplaned and only one was dressed satisfactorily.

In response, supervisors are being assigned to airports nationwide to inspect the air cops before and after flights to make sure business suits or sports coats are being worn, according to numerous memos issued last week and obtained by The Washington Times.

“The most recent incidents with [New York marshals have] shown that they are not adhering to the agency’s dress-code policy,” said one memo.

Air marshals are being told that if their dress is not up to snuff, they will be suspended from flight duty. They are referring to the incident as the “Thanksgiving Day massacre.”

A spokesman for FAMS could not be reached for comment.

One air marshal who asked not to be identified called it “ridiculous” that marshals are expected to blend in with holiday travelers by wearing a suit.

“On Thanksgiving Day, travelers don’t wear business suits to visit family and friends,” the marshal said.

The dress-code policy is a sore point among the traveling marshals, who say it compromises their undercover status.

A provision included in the intelligence-reform bill would allow the air marshals to wear less-conspicuous clothing. The final vote on the bill is expected today in the Senate.

Pulling air cops from flight duty because of attire puts a strain on an agency already stretched for manpower, say marshals, who cover less than 2 percent of an estimated 30,000 daily flights. Suspending one marshal means the suspension of an entire team, which can affect two to four flights per day, the second marshal said.

“Of all times to do this, during the holidays, this is insane,” the second marshal said.

Marshals say they need to protect their undercover status so terrorists cannot determine which flights are protected.

One memo from the Miami FAMS field office says: “Effective immediately, rotating [supervisors] will be assigned to and will be present in each of our airports every day.

“I am particularly concerned about the general appearance of some FAMs and that will be one of the factors I expect supervisors to observe and report … A professional appearance means well-groomed and wearing neat and clean clothing — not rumpled, wrinkled, mismatched, etc.”

A memo issued from the Boston field office says that “failure to meet the standards will result in administrative action.

“Compliance with these policies is mandatory, not optional.”

The dress code for marshals is described in a separate field-office memo as “conservative male or female attire, such as that worn by business persons in first-class seating,” a business suit, or sports coat with dress pants and tie, or sports coat with dress pants and collared shirt.

The memo issued from the New York field office requires marshals flying into Washington to also wear ties.

“FAMS will present a professional image and blend into their environment by maintaining a standard of dress that enables them to perform their mission without drawing undue attention to themselves,” the New York memo says.

Marshals in one field office were warned not to “get caught” without jackets, while another office warned that supervisors who do not properly monitor the dress code also will be subject to disciplinary action.

Marshals say the strict code does not take climate into consideration. In the Miami heat, marshals are required to keep their suit coats on at all times, yet in Pittsburgh, agents are forbidden from wearing overcoats in cold weather.

“You wear a sports coat, or you wear a suit coat, or you look for another job,” agents were told Monday.

“They’re making a huge deal of this. They’ve blown a gasket,” the first marshal said.

Two marshals were yanked from a flight in July for not wearing suits or sports coats and a third marshal faces three days of suspension in January for not wearing a jacket before two flights in July.

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