Monday, November 20, 2006

A team of federal air marshals was prevented from protecting a recent flight from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport because a gate agent erroneously said they did not have the correct paperwork, say marshals familiar with the incident.

Officials with Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) were called in to remove the marshals from US Airways Flight 3464 departing Nov. 8 for Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Conn.

“Right now we know, obviously, that federal air marshals were denied boarding,” said Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) spokesman Conan Bruce.

Marshals knowledgeable about this case and others told The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity that the gate agent demanded paperwork which is required of other law-enforcement officials, but not from federal air marshals who are on duty to protect the plane from a terrorist attack.

The flight arrived late, and passengers were immediately boarded while marshals showed their identification to the gate agent and head flight attendant. They asked to brief the captain then boarded the plane.

The marshals were first rousted from their seats to report to the jet bridge, where the gate agent demanded paperwork intended for off-duty law-enforcement officers carrying weapons. The marshals told the gate agent that they were on mission status and the paperwork was not required, and they returned to their seats.

The marshals were called to the jet bridge a second time to speak with the captain, and the marshals then returned to their seats.

Minutes later, the marshals were called again to the jet bridge a third time, where MWAA officers ordered the marshals to exit the plane.

Even the intervention of higher-ups in the Homeland Security Department could not persuade the airline to allow the armed law-enforcement agents aboard, and the plane departed unprotected an hour and a half late, the sources said.

Calls for comment to Republic Airlines, which owns US Airways, were not returned.

Air Marshal Director Dana Brown has pledged to rewrite the boarding rules, which marshals say are defined differently by airlines and often exposes their undercover identities.

Mr. Bruce said the agency is working with the airline to review the incident, “get the facts and find out what happened.”

Asked whether similar situations have occurred in which airlines barred marshals from boarding, Mr. Bruce said “I’m sure it has in the past five years; it isn’t the first incident.”

“I would not say it’s a regular occurrence. After we expanded the program and added so many thousands of marshals, it was a learning process for the airlines and us. I would not say it was a regular occurrence, maybe early on, but not a regular occurrence now,” Mr. Bruce said.

“It is important to point out we work hand in hand with the airlines. It’s a cooperative effort; that’s why we have a liaison division,” Mr. Bruce said. “We’ll figure it out, we’ll review it, but I don’t want to speculate until we have all the facts.”

Marshals say this isn’t the first time they have encountered animosity from airlines and the flight crews whom they protect.

“There were hundreds of incidents like this,” one air marshal said of the period shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks. “Air marshals finally stopped filing reports because the air marshal usually ends up being investigated for not being able to cooperate.”

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