Thursday, September 21, 2006

A key House member yesterday said that Congress should review the large number of federal air marshals sidelined by injuries sustained while protecting passengers from another September 11-style terrorist attack.

More than 2,100, or nearly half the Federal Air Marshals Service’s peak force, have been awarded workers’ compensation claims in the past three years, according to the Labor Department.

Rep. John L. Mica, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on aviation, said he was “surprised” by the high volume of injuries.

“These are supposed to be our healthiest and most physically fit people to undertake that kind of responsibility, and the number does seem to be inordinately high,” Mr. Mica said.

Mr. Mica’s subcommittee has responsibility over the federal flight deck officers program, which arms pilots to protect airplanes from hijackings, and said he has “grandfather oversight responsibility” for the marshals.

“We will look at it, whether Homeland Security [committee] or whoever has legislative authority over the air marshals. We need to look at it, so we will check it out so that we can make sure to have those people ready and fit to do the job,” Mr. Mica said.

“I deal with pilots and flight attendants on aircraft all the time, and we don’t have that kind of record,” Mr. Mica said.

Any depletion in airline security from the marshals service would be augmented by the thousands of pilots who now carry guns, Mr. Mica said.

The Washington Times reported yesterday that 2,450 claims have been filed in the past three years for workers’ compensation, with 2,136 having been accepted, according to statistics provided by the Labor Department.

The marshals are reporting various injuries, including barotrauma and decompression sickness, which can rupture eardrums and require sinus, even brain surgery.

“They’re killing their people,” one air marshal told The Times on the condition of anonymity. “Congress needs to get involved and take a look because our health and well being is being jeopardized on a daily basis. If you have air marshals flying sick, they are not properly protecting the public.”

Calls yesterday to the House Homeland Security Committee and to the office of Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican and panel chairman, were not returned. A Republican staffer for the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which has jurisdiction over TSA, said it is “unclear” whether there will be any oversight.

In a written rebuttal provided last night, the Transportation Security Administration disputed The Times’ report as “inaccurate” and “misleading.”

“The health of the workforce has been and continues to be a major focus of the Federal Air Marshals Service,” the statement said.

“Only 48 claimants remain off work and are in receipt of benefits due to wage loss from workers’ compensation claims,” the statement said.

But marshals say the reason for the small number of off-work claimants is that the typical injuries make marshals unable to fly frequently. Such a marshal cannot fulfill the mission for which he was hired, and he thus can be fired.

Shawn McCullers, who was fired after developing deep-vein thrombosis, said many marshals are afraid to make medical claims for fear of dismissal.

“Orthopedic and barotrauma injuries, are the most common reported by the workforce,” the TSA said. “Deep vein thrombosis is an extremely rare condition and less than a handful of cases have been reported.”

The TSA also disputes how much flight time air marshals are assigned — officially, five hours a day with 12 hours downtime between each flight and only 15 days a month.

“That’s a lie,” the air marshal said. “I would love to fly only 15 days a month.”

Don Strange, former special agent in charge of the Atlanta field office until last year, was puzzled by TSA’s statement that marshals only cover two flights a day.

“When I was there, the guys flew three legs a day, now they are flying four a day,” Mr. Strange said.

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