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.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, agreed and said the United States “has been warned.”
“I think there ought to be air marshals on every plane, not just random — on every single plane,” Mrs. Boxer said.
Air marshals guard every flight on Israel’s El Al Airlines, a model that U.S. government officials viewed as ideal but impractical. Mr. Luckey agrees, saying it would take 25 to 30 times the number of current marshals to protect all daily U.S. flights.
“It’s financially impossible to give us the adequate coverage by putting marshals on every flight like Israel. They have 36 planes, and we have 4,000 to 6,000 planes. It’s cost-prohibitive; the government could not afford to hire that many, and it’s not necessary to cover all flights,” Mr. Luckey said.
David Adams, spokesman for the Federal Air Marshal Service, declined to comment on the numbers citing the classification status.
“People could figure out the ratio of which [planes] are covered and which ones are not. That’s our position — the amount of personnel is classified, and we won’t release it.”
A briefing paper released by the Homeland Security Department on September 11, 2003, says, “Today, thousands of air marshals fly on tens of thousands of flights each month on a wide variety of routes and aircraft.”
The government measures air-marshal protection by the number of flights they take, as opposed to the number of miles they fly, so marshals often fly two or three legs a day rather than long-haul flights, said one air marshal.
In March, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge told a House appropriations panel that the number of air marshals is declining, but that planes could be protected by Secret Service agents and other federal law-enforcement officials traveling on government time.
Government officials also are counting on a program to arm pilots to protect the cockpit, but only 2,600 pilots out of nearly 100,000 have been trained to carry guns.
Mrs. Boxer said in a March 9 letter to Mr. Ridge that she was “shocked” by his statement that the number of marshals in the sky is declining.
“This is unacceptable,” she said. “I strongly believe that air marshals are a necessary component to a secure aviation system. Now is not the time to cut the number of air marshals. We should be doing just the opposite.”
Mr. Adams told Gannett News Service in late May the Federal Air Marshal Service is under a self-imposed hiring freeze, and an unnamed administration official told CNN that about 100 air-marshal positions would be eliminated this year.
With fewer planes being protected by air marshals, many in the ranks are riled over recent incidents that further have blocked marshals from protecting aircraft.
Two marshals were yanked from a Southwest Airlines flight from Cleveland in July for not adhering to a strict dress code that required them to be wearing sports coats. The flight continued without marshal protection.
A third marshal was grounded last week in Las Vegas, during the current high terrorist alert level, on suspicion of leaking disparaging memos from the Federal Air Marshal Service to journalists. He is washing government cars as punishment.
“Morale is low,” one air marshal said.