- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 14, 2009

An audit of the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) shows that numerous changes and improvements have been made in how the fledgling agency is using its work force to address homeland security threats.

No longer are the undercover officers dressing like undercover police officers, nor do they flip their credentials at the gate for all to see and “preboard” ahead of even first-class passengers.

Quality of life also has improved for the marshals, who now get a 60-hour rest, equivalent to a weekend, before starting a new shift, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

“These efforts have produced some positive results,” the GAO said Friday in the audit, conducted from April 2007 through December 2008.

“For example, FAMS revised its policy for airport check-in and aircraft-boarding procedures to help protect the anonymity of air marshals in mission status, and FAMS adjusted its flight-scheduling process for air marshals to support a better work-life balance.”

The GAO says air marshals whom the agency interviewed for the audit were “satisfied” with the direction of the agency under new leadership. And the new leader, FAMS Director Robert Bray, doesn’t try to hide how pleased his agency is with the audit results.

“We put a lot of work into it to get to the point where we are now,” Mr. Bray said in an interview with The Washington Times. “We are a new agency and we are still building our house, and we had some things we had to do in a logical order to get the agency up and running.”

Dozens of air marshals had rebelled behind the scenes on a series of matters, many first reported in The Times, against Tom Quinn, the first director of the Federal Air Marshal Service following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Their grievances ranged from the dress code to flying schedules that put their health at serious risk, and then to charges of retribution for whistleblowing when internally suggested changes were ignored. As a result, morale throughout the service took a nose dive.

Robert MacLean was fired after disclosing that the agency planned to eliminate coast-to-coast flights because they were too costly, and The Times revealed that managers were using counting tricks to boost the number of flights covered and were presenting those misleading numbers to Congress.

A report by the House Judiciary Committee criticized the agency and said it was “unacceptable for Federal Air Marshal management to be oblivious to problems facing their organization.”

Changes began almost immediately after Mr. Quinn announced his sudden retirement in January 2006. Under the direction of Dana Brown, management sat down with the marshals to discuss numerous problems that subsequently were solved internally.

When Mr. Bray took over the agency in July, he continued the work of 36 committees composed of management and air marshals, as well as listening sessions and an internal Web site for employees to report problems anonymously.

“The key thing we hope to do is improve morale, but also to make the work force more efficient in its primary mission to detect and deter terrorists,” Mr. Bray said.

In addition, Personal Digital Assistants (PDA) - communication devices that many marshals complained did not work and were not designed to work while in flight - are being discarded for cell phones, and new communications contracts are being sought.

Asked whether the new openness and new tools for communication have improved morale already, Mr. Bray said, “Morale has significantly improved.”

Privately, air marshals praise Mr. Brown and Mr. Bray for turning the agency around and paying attention to internal problems rather than reacting with retribution. Both brought needed leadership, guidance and direction, marshals say.

More emphasis is being put on the health of the marshals, and Mr. Bray said federal health officials are slated to study the effects of constant take-offs and landings on marshals to further refine their schedules.

The only criticism from the GAO was in how the agency conducted a work-force satisfaction survey for employees in fiscal 2007, which the GAO said offered ambiguous questions and limited how an employee could respond.

Asked how the next survey will differ, Mr. Bray said employees will now have the option to disagree.

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