Airlines seek to move air marshals from first class
10/18/2010 5:08 PM
By Alan Levin, USA TODAY
Airlines are asking the Federal Air Marshals Service to relax its policy of often seating undercover agents in first class because they say it has become a costly disruption that isn't justified by current security threats.
The Air Transport Association, the Washington trade group representing large carriers, and several airline CEOs recently appealed to Transportation Security Administration head John Pistole and his marshals service counterpart, Robert Bray, to move marshals to seats farther back in planes.
By going public with their concerns, the airlines have shone a rare light on the behind-the-scenes tensions that sometimes arise in the secretive force that protects against terrorism in the skies. The disclosure prompted a harsh backlash from a group that represents marshals.
The marshals service, the force of undercover marksmen that was greatly expanded after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, travels for free. Marshals are guaranteed a seat on a flight and they often take seats in first class, says David Castelveter, spokesman for the airlines' association.
The airlines and some security experts say the need isn't as great as it once was for marshals to sit in first class, where they can serve as a barrier to a suicide hijacker. They say security measures such as hardened cockpit doors and recent terrorist attempts in the rear of planes suggest that threats may be at least as great elsewhere on planes.
"We want to be absolutely sure that TSA is considering the risk level on board the airplane in determining the placement of the (marshals)," Castelveter says.
Though the loss of revenue in profitable first-class sections helped trigger the airlines' concerns, the carriers would not raise the issue if they didn't believe it was justified, Castelveter says.
Marshals contend it was "inappropriate" for the airlines to raise the issue publicly because it could expose the agency's tactics to terrorists, says John Adler, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, which represents marshals.
Adler declined to speak about where marshals normally sit. He called the airlines' statements inaccurate and says he wrote to the House Homeland Security Committee suggesting airline executives be reprimanded. "They are sitting in the bleachers, and they don't have access to the playbook," he says.
Nelson Minerly, spokesman for the marshals service, declined to respond directly to the airline concerns. He says the agency deploys marshals based on intelligence and other analysis designed to identify the biggest risks.
A recent incident involving an international flight on a U.S. carrier helped jell airline concerns, Castelveter says. The flight, which he wouldn't identify, had a contingent of marshals aboard when federal officials sought to add marshals from a flight that was canceled. The agency wanted to place the newly added marshals in first class. After the airline objected, the agency relented and relocated the marshals.
Minerly says he had not been able to verify that the incident occurred.