Sky Marshals Flying First Class

I regularly say that security decisions are primarily made for non-security reasons. This article about the placement of sky marshals on airplanes is an excellent example. Basically, the airlines would prefer they fly coach instead of first class.

Airline CEOs met recently with TSA administrator John Pistole and officials from the Federal Air Marshal Service requesting the TSA to reconsider the placement of marshals based on current security threats.

"Our concern is far less revenue and more that we have defenses appropriate to the threat," said James May, chief executive of the Air Transport Association, the airline industry's lobbying group. "We think there needs to be an even distribution, particularly when we have multiple agents on board."

[...]

By law, airlines must provide seats to marshals at no cost in any cabin requested. With first-class and business-class seats in particular, the revenue loss to airlines can be substantial because they can't sell last-minute tickets or upgrades, and travelers sometimes get bumped to the back or lose out on upgrade opportunities. When travelers do get bumped, airlines are barred from divulging why the first-class seat was unexpectedly taken away, to keep the presence of a marshal a secret. Bumped travelers -- airlines can't disclose how many passengers are affected -- typically get coach seats and refunds on the cash or miles they paid for the better seat.

When I list the few improvements to airline security since 9/11, I don't include sky marshals.

EDITED TO ADD (10/9): An article from The Economist.

Posted on October 4, 2010 at 1:55 PM • 82 Comments

Comments

DinahOctober 4, 2010 2:11 PM

Man, I missed out. No real work to do, free first class flight, power that no one dares to question to your face, and a nation convinced that you're necessary to keep them safe from terror. You gotta hand it to these guys, they really found out how to play the system.

PhillipOctober 4, 2010 2:21 PM

I would think from a security stand point you'd want to have them seated more towards the rear of the aircraft. This would give them a vantage point of view of things in front of them. If they are in first class are they going to be turning their head around all the time and combing the plane with their eyes to see what's going on?

...because it's not like that behavior would be telling about their position at all!

BlakeOctober 4, 2010 2:34 PM

Well, if they (the .gov) are better than the rest of us, then you'd think they should have better seats and service than the rest of us, right?

It's only logical.

Chris SOctober 4, 2010 2:36 PM

My recollection of flying economy is that curtains get pulled between there and first/business class. If you want to see what's happening up front, you have to be up front.

I think I can see an easy solution here though -- the TSA should simply purchase tickets for sky marshals. They can use their buying power to get a reasonably good rate - and the airlines should be required to sell the tickets, not block them with claims of "sorry, the flight is full". The airlines might even have to bump people to make it work. But I'm not clear on why an airline should have to give up a revenue-producing asset for free in these cases.

Grande MochaOctober 4, 2010 2:49 PM

@Chris: "I think I can see an easy solution here though -- the TSA should simply purchase tickets for sky marshals."

That seems like a logical solution to me! Forcing the purchase of tickets ensures that the true cost of the process is accounted for to the tax payers.

I can see a logical reason for putting the marshals in first class. Usually, first class is closest to the cockpit, so it does make sense to put the marshals there.

Of course, I think the best solution is to just armor the cockpit door so well that no one will be able to get into it without the pilot's permission. Cheap, effective, and uncontroversial.

uk visaOctober 4, 2010 2:51 PM

In how many cases have Sky Marshals intervened to avoid catastrophe?
My guess is that they give very little ROI...

Brandioch ConnerOctober 4, 2010 2:55 PM

I agree with Phillip and Chris. The tickets should be purchased and the sky marshals should be assigned to seats where they can see the most activity.

Being IN first class limits visibility.

Being seated close enough to first class to see and hear passengers in first class would be better.

Remember, the sky marshals probably won't encounter a terrorist threat.

More likely, they'll encounter a regular passenger being a problem.

Some guyOctober 4, 2010 2:55 PM

But one time on a flight, there where 3 sky marshalls sitting in coach and 1 in bussines on a flight from to US to Europe. I spotted them very easily, because they where the first and only one already sitting comfortably when I entered the cabin (even as I wasn't the first in line). During flight they behaved differently then any normal passenger and in Europe they left to the field and were taken by a police car.

kingsnakeOctober 4, 2010 2:56 PM

Or get rid of the cockpit door entirely. Only access should be from the outside, on the flight line. (Like B-17s back in WWII.) Enlarge the cockpit to include a basic head, and all problems solved.

SteveOctober 4, 2010 2:59 PM

Two stories re: air marshals.

(1) One time a big guy sitting in the 4th row aisle first class was wearing sunglasses during the flight. Every time someone got up to use the toilet or open an overhead locker or whatever, sunglass guy removed his sunglasses. When the passenger sat back down, the sunglasses went back on. This air marshal probably missed a day or two of training.

(2) Two weeks ago I saw what might have been an air marshal seat exchange. I was in the 3rd row aisle up front. A passenger came on the plane with a boarding pass for the 4th row aisle. However, that seat was already occupied. The flight attendant told the current occupant he'd have to move so that the replacement passenger could sit down. As you'd expect, the current occupant was a bit irritated when the FA said he had been downgraded (what a terrible word). He and the FA walked off the plane to chat. Eventually when we landed I asked the guy what happened. He said the FA's excuse was "a government intervention for that seat on this flight." Sounds like an air marshal, yeah...but the person who got the seat was a Gucci-toting, British-accented woman. So just who are we hiring as air marshals now? Weird.

HJohnOctober 4, 2010 3:03 PM

@Grande Mocha: "I can see a logical reason for putting the marshals in first class. Usually, first class is closest to the cockpit, so it does make sense to put the marshals there."
__________

There are also a couple other reasons. They are on the up front first, so they can watch people as they come in and walk by, as well as scope out the others in first class. Also, if they were further back, perpetrators could simply wait until a beverage cart was obstructing the aisle -- which would hinder both the view and mobility of the sky marshal. One could go further and state that if a sky marshall were at a random place in coach, it would be tougher for a flight attendant to alert them of something.

That's not to say I think sky marshall's are affective. That's simply to say that if they are going to be used, there is logic behind the placement.

Personally, if they are going to be used, I think placing them at random near the first seats in coach, and upgrading them to first class free of charge if there are seats available, would be reasonable. First class may be better than the rear of the plane, but I don't think it is significantly better than the first few seats of coach.

RobOctober 4, 2010 3:09 PM

The air marshalls should be inflatable like the autopilot in "Airplane." That way they can be hidden until needed and would have the advantage of surprise.

AlanOctober 4, 2010 3:27 PM

Being an air marshall would be pure hell. Flying all the time? Sheesh. Even flying once in a while is torture. No thanks. These folks deserve every upgrade they can get.

SnallaBolagetOctober 4, 2010 4:24 PM

When I list the few improvements made to security awareness since 2004, I don't include Bruce Schneier.

That said, there are good arguments for every possible placement of the sky marshals (an "Air Marshal" is a 3-star RAF officer, comparable to a general - army - or admiral - navy), but unlike Bruce, I do think they are an asset to the continuing task of securing air travel.

Bruce disapproves of airport security, and almost anything that moves in regards to physical security, checkpoint security etc, and so the sky marshals should be a step in the right direction, you'd think - but no.
Granted that there may be some hiccups (the sunglass guy from a previous comment, for example) but I doubt that there's anything in this world that is perfect. That said, I think having someone actually on board the aircraft can be a lot more effective than any measures taken on the ground - once you're up there and something happens, it's a good idea to have someone present that is tasked with countering whatever the irregularity is.

Anyway. People who read this site will be very familiar with Bruce's consistent slamming of things he doesn't like, without him making any arguments to support the opinion. Frankly, it's getting old.

MicahOctober 4, 2010 4:55 PM

As a GA pilot I have great disdain for the TSA. See here at the link a TSA training session that is required for flight instructors (don't waste your time with the training).

http://www.tsa.gov/what_we_do/tsnm/general_aviation/training.shtm

This training (or a recurrent training) is required for flight instructors. The TSA likewise requires flight instructors to certify the naturalization status of any prospective student (yet provides me no training in making this required certification).

All of this is mocked by the required training (at the link) and the graduation certificate presented when I finish training. I type my own name into the certificate to "certify" my training. I then type my wife's name and print her a copy too. Now she's "certified" by the TSA as trained in observing and preventing unauthorized practices at a GA airport.

Dr. TOctober 4, 2010 4:59 PM

Unlike SnailaBolaget (who has no evidence for his opiniouns), I agree that Sky Marshals are essentially worthless. So are the TSA's passenger screening protocols and the restrictions on weapons or weapon-like items. I'd feel safer if all air passengers were allowed to carry edged weapons and if passengers with adequate training (and low-power bullets) were allowed to carry handguns. A hijacker (or even a team of hijackers) wouldn't stand a chance if one-fourth of the passengers had knives and one-twentieth had guns.

Since 9/11/01, every in-air threat (shoe bombs, potential hijackings, violent passengers, etc.) on US airline flights has been stopped by regular passengers. The TSA's protocols increase the risks of bad outcomes. If we had a government that cared about its citizens (instead of its power), the TSA would never have been created.

dreamfishOctober 4, 2010 5:04 PM

Actually, wouldn't it be more sensible to have the marshal pretend to be one of the cabin crew - that way they could stand near the door during boarding to watch everyone and they could walk up and down the aisles of each cabin frequently during the flight to observe people closely without drawing any attention.

Russ NelsonOctober 4, 2010 5:07 PM

SnallaBolaget, the reason sky marshalls are useless is because the only reason 9/11 succeeded is because everyone thought that struggle against the hijackers would only increase the risk. Now, NOT strugging (for your life!) increases the risk. Every little old lady with a cane is better armed than any one of the flying 9/11 victims.

There's a reason why four airplanes were simultaneously hijacked. The one that was even a little late got the news that activism against the hijackers held the only possibility of survival.

There will never be another hijacking of an airplane.

kingsnakeOctober 4, 2010 5:29 PM

Until someone repurposes Stuxnet to from centrifuge control to flight control. I'm just sayin' ...

ErikOctober 4, 2010 5:56 PM

Isn't the number of lives saved by the Air Marshal program is still below zero (counting overreactions to non-terror events)?

Peter MaxwellOctober 4, 2010 6:18 PM

@Dr. T at October 4, 2010 4:59 PM:

"I'd feel safer if all air passengers were allowed to carry edged weapons and if passengers with adequate training (and low-power bullets) were allowed to carry handguns. A hijacker (or even a team of hijackers) wouldn't stand a chance if one-fourth of the passengers had knives and one-twentieth had guns."

Sounds good until you consider further down the line: if you have a team of terrorists who are all now armed with edge weapons, and appropriate martial arts training things get significantly worse. In close quarters, it is arguable that edge weapons are more effective than handguns, and the terrorists have the advantage of training, planning and coherence. A large proportion of passengers dead is a semi-good result for a terrorist who is willing to give up his/her own life.

However, I do agree with the ethos of your argument: someone with a sharp pen has massive advantage in a conflict over normal passengers these days. Security should scan for guns and knives larger than pocket knife size, and anything explosive shaped. Afterwhich common sense should prevail so in the worst case scenario, at least folk stand a chance; has the added benefit of resumption of sanity at airport security checks.

Peter MaxwellOctober 4, 2010 6:21 PM

Or, being facetious, the TSA could administer sedatives to every passenger before boarding the plane: everyone is asleep for the journey, so the only potential terrorists are the staff & marshals... plus... the passengers arrive rested and don't have to put up with the hassle.

Everyone's a winner.

HussarOctober 4, 2010 6:40 PM

For Erik "Isn't the number of lives saved by the Air Marshal program is still below zero (counting overreactions to non-terror events)?" I believe the count is actually -1 in that Federal Air Marshals did shoot and kill an innocent passenger in Miami a few years ago. Apparently they confused someone with bipolar disorder as terrorist and believed that he had a bomb that he would have to have carried on the plane through security in a foreign country, then past CBP in the US and finally TSA. As usual it was swept under the rug as a "good shoot" by the feds.

Rich-October 4, 2010 7:51 PM

@Brandioch Conner: More likely, they'll encounter a regular passenger being a problem.

Who they will shoot?

EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddyOctober 4, 2010 8:03 PM

I have occasionally been a frequent traveler, and casual observation has suggested to me a method by which a small group could document the faces of most of the regular sky marshals working out of a couple of particular airports. (I don't and won't claim that it is universally applicable, I haven't spent enough time at enough airports.)

The only necessary tools: cell phones with decent and unobtrusive cameras.

Because the procedures applied to the Marshals at the security checkpoints were visibly different from those applied to either the proles or the TSA.

How risky it would be to the people doing the surveillance is difficult for me to judge. Likewise how effectively it could mitigate the random-marshal-risk to a operation is unclear.

But if I were a bad guy I'd put it on my list of counter measures to consider.

A couple of random responses: Dinah, I wouldn't want the job, but I think that Alan under-estimates the amount of the hassle of air-travel that we experience the Marshals get to skip.

JamesOctober 4, 2010 8:24 PM

Given the small number of flights that actually have air marshals - about 5%, I don't think airlines have a big case really.

Everyone knows that given the coverage and the fact that terrorism is practically non-existent, air marshals are really a bad investment. Empowering people to take care of things when necessary is more efficient and has widespread benefits. if I'm on a flight getting hijacked, the cockpit is locked so we're relatively safe as far as 9/11 tactics too. The only question is whether they have bombs or guns. I'd fight in any case. 4-5 hijackers can't defend against 100 people, although the tight space gives them some advantage.

Jay from BKKOctober 4, 2010 8:28 PM

@kingsnake

Your idea is completely untenable for long-haul flights where two full crews for the flight deck are required. Berthing space for the off duty crew is mandatory.

AndrewOctober 4, 2010 10:01 PM

The ideal sky marshal program would include pilots, cabin crew, frequent flyers and occasional passengers. 10% of pilots is more cost-effective than 5% of flights.

Cabin crew should be sky marshals covered as, and working as, flight attendants. That means serving drinks, preparing for landing, etc -- but with deep concealment of their firearm and an actual work ethic.

Frequent flyers should be able to apply to be "reserve sky marshals." This parallels existing reserve peace officer programs across the USA. They're already there ... But this would also imply a nationwide CCW, which is politically sensitive.

The pool of occasional travelers able to intervene in an emergency would be very cheaply increased by allowing local law enforcement to fly armed after an additional training course.

To the extent possible, sky marshals should be covered first as cabin crew, then as frequent flyers, and only last as occasional passengers. Perhaps extensive interviews with the first two groups would shed some light on how best to do this.

The purpose of a sky marshal program is to insert uncertainty into terrorist planning. Several small programs are more likely to achieve this than one hidebound bureaucratic tangle.

A ReaderOctober 4, 2010 10:31 PM

"When I list the few improvements to airline security since 9/11, I don't include sky marshals."

The 2008 writing "Security vs. Privacy" (http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2008/01/security_vs_pri.html ) includes the following:

"Since 9/11, approximately three things have potentially improved airline security: reinforcing the cockpit doors, passengers realizing they have to fight back and -- possibly -- sky marshals. Everything else -- all the security measures that affect privacy -- is just security theater and a waste of effort."

What gives?

nilsOctober 4, 2010 10:37 PM

According to Congressman John J. Duncan, the air marshal program has led to only 4.2 arrests a year, at an average cost of $200 million per arrest. He argued that this represents a win of the perceived dangers of terror, supported by a profit center-type approach, over realistic spending priorities.[29]

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_Air_Marshal_Service

sounds like a winning program to me.

DavidOctober 4, 2010 11:02 PM

Sorry but Air Marshals stand out like sore thumbs. They usually arrive late, walk onto the airplane like they own the place, and are usually dressed like bums sitting in first class.

I fly every week for work and can spot them immediately when they show up. I would bet that the mythical terrorist can, too.

DGOctober 5, 2010 12:33 AM

Act like an Air Marshal week? If we are so sure of the behaviors exhibited they can be emulated.

Davi OttenheimerOctober 5, 2010 2:08 AM

@David

"Sorry but Air Marshals stand out like sore thumbs. They usually arrive late, walk onto the airplane like they own the place, and are usually dressed like bums sitting in first class."

Are you calling Mark Zuckerberg an Air Marshal? Ouch.

But seriously, sorry David, that was me. I'll shave next time.

When Dana Brown changed the dress code he told the Marshals "blend in and not direct attention to yourself, as well as be sufficiently functional to enable you to conduct your law enforcement responsibilities.'' Hardly the stuff of bums in first class.

I am surprised no one here has suggested yet that the chance of terrorism is higher in first class -- from what I hear you don't want to be around if Paris Hilton's orange juice is served with ice and she said no ice...

fullbirdmusicOctober 5, 2010 2:59 AM

I can't believe those guys can demand first class tickets! On an international flight, they're probably kicked back watching Family Guy like the rest of the upper class passengers - or worse, sleeping.

It's fairly well-known that if a plane is going to be taken over, it will start most likely in the back. With the curtains drawn and lights off, visibility is non-existent. I can't believe that the airlines just have to roll over and offer them these kinds of services. What's the justification?

I'm not sorry if they have to fly, that's their job. An "upgrade" or more expensive seat just because they're an air marshall doesn't pass the common sense test. Just like I have to drive to work, they're required to sit on a plane. Don't like to fly? Don't be an air marshall. I felt reassured (perhaps naively, I'm realizing) that there were air marshalls on my international flights, but had no idea of the accommodations they were being afforded.

In a way, I'm happy that the taxpayers aren't footing that bill but shouldn't they be where the action is, so to speak? The umpire in a baseball game, after all isn't kicked back in his luxury box scarfing down hotdogs during the game. He's behind the catcher - where the action is.

Tell me if I'm missing something.

ytOctober 5, 2010 3:56 AM

@Phillip: "because it's not like that behavior would be telling about their position at all!"

In my experience, air marshals are not very good at being covert/inconspicuous. They don't seem to have figured out that a man who follows a woman and her daughter to the ladies' room in the airport (happened to me) is going to raise some eyebrows and possibly alarm bells. It'll be a while before they figure out how not to give away their position on planes.

ytOctober 5, 2010 4:03 AM

@Chris S: "But I'm not clear on why an airline should have to give up a revenue-producing asset for free in these cases."

They could fly the way airline employees do: as non-revenue passengers. Non-rev passengers pay the break-even cost of putting a rear end in a seat on the plane. When I worked for an airline over a decade ago, that cost was $20 each way for coach and $60 each way for first class on domestic flights in the US. If I recall correctly, the cost for international flights was something like 10% of the full fare coach price.

Airlines do already offer discounted government rates for government employees traveling on official business. I'm not sure why air marshals don't pay even that when they fly.

Stuart SchechterOctober 5, 2010 5:56 AM

In response to the argument the amount of flying marshals do should justify the first class seat, consider that the experience of an air marshal in coach as compared to the experience of the flight attendants. While the air marshal sits, the flight attendant is required to stand, bend, and smile for hours on end, and do so while interacting with people who are agitated.

If sky marshals are doing their job, the number of arrests should equal the number of actual terrorists. Every time a sky marshal intervenes in a non-terrorist incident he or she is exposing her identity. If there should be another incident where a group of terrorists attempt to take over a plane, expect the first one will likely to act violent and insane to draw out the marshals. The rest can wait and observe.

MortenOctober 5, 2010 6:15 AM

@Peter Maxwell: sedating the passengers is not a very good idea. If passengers don't move around during long flights they will start dying. The rate of in-air heart attacks is going to explode, with litigation to follow. Deep-vein thrombosis is not a Good Thing.

BF SkinnerOctober 5, 2010 6:23 AM

Marshalls are identifiable. I've usually looked for the big healthy guy wearing the gun logo hats who boards with the women with kids and invalids; and sits in first class.

The marshals sit where they can keep an eye on the cockpit door. Because the cockpit is the control and communications node of the vehicle. The principal objective for a hijacker is to control either the cockpit or the people in the cockpit. Anything hinky going on on the plane will come to that door. It's why Bruce and others have argued that reinforcing the door is the most cost effective control.

Clive RobinsonOctober 5, 2010 6:51 AM

One thing that annoys me about "Sky Marshals" is the notion of them being Police or Peace Officers.

Follow the logic of hijackers in the past (yes I'm including pre 9/11) they where by and large terrorists or those making a political statment not criminals extorting money.

The main difference is the expected outcome of surviability. Since the 1970's it became increasingly clear that the result of being a hijacker was death. Most criminals don't want to die they want to enjoy the proceads of their crime.

By and large Police or Peace Officers face criminals who can be negotiated with simply because of the criminals expectation of staying alive. Most of a Police or Peace Officers training is fundimentaly based around this idea.

Soldiers on the other hand are trained around the notion that those opposing them base their surviability around removing the soldier as a threat. This engenders a very very different mind set and makes a fundemental difference in the training.

It is the latter mentality of "nullify threats on contact" as opposed to "minimise casualties by negotiation" that is more appropriate to dealing with those with no expectation of survivability such as terrorists or these days ALL hijackers.

The problem is that as others have noted the number of people who are in some way disruptive or inconsiderate to others on an aircraft out numbers the terrorists by many orders of magnitude. Dealing with them by negotiation or pacification is the correct method of resolving the issue.

Thus the question arises just what purpose is a sky marshal serving. If it is dealing with terrorists then they should not be getting involved with the pacification of disruptive passangers. One reason for this is that they reveal themselves to all by taking such action and thus can be "red flagged" by terrorists with no difficulty.

However part of the "sell job" to airlines was that sky marshals would improve airline security, the implication being and thus the expectation of the airlines or their crews that sky marshals would act as peace officers with regards to disruptive passengers...

Thus a choice has to be made as to what purpose a sky marshal serves. If it is as a peace officer then there should be more involvment of aircrew being trained as such. If it is as a soldier then they should be fully independent of the air crew etc and thus should be a passenger like any other untill such time as their particular services are required.

Thus if they are a "passenger" they pay for their seat, if they are "air crew" then they work their passage.

My own view is that sky marshals are a liability that out weights the benifit by several orders of magnitude as appears to be the case with a less than zero success rate.

However there is a little demon inside me that likes the idea of various "Z list celebs" or those that behave like them getting a cold dose of reality of having a gun pointed at them and being told to sit like a dog whenever they decide to have a hissy fit.

PaxOctober 5, 2010 6:53 AM

I flew BA a few years ago internationally and noticed the flight attendants were predominantly male, with hair length of military precision and they looked like they could strong arm passengers when necessary - but were very friendly in their service.

I wondered if BA's approach to sky marshalls was to recruit some SAS chaps into hospitality training.

SnallaBolagetOctober 5, 2010 7:12 AM

Hehehe! This is funny. Thanks to A.Reader in a previous post for pointing this out.

The 2008 writing "Security vs. Privacy" (http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2008/01/security_vs_pri.html ) includes the following:
"Since 9/11, approximately three things have potentially improved airline security: reinforcing the cockpit doors, passengers realizing they have to fight back and -- possibly -- sky marshals. Everything else -- all the security measures that affect privacy -- is just security theater and a waste of effort."

Yeah, Bruce - what gives?

Russell CokerOctober 5, 2010 7:18 AM

Do Air Marshals always travel in packs? It seems that the best way to have a gun on a plane is to take one from an Air Marshal. Criminal 1 would act like a regular aggressive drunk while criminal 2 waits to confiscate a gun from any Air Marshal that intervenes. If the criminals can get a situation where they have a gun and no-one else does then it's going to be bad for all the passengers.

But if the cockpit is armored then it won't matter much. Even if all the passengers on a plane were killed it won't approach the amount of death and destruction that could be caused by a crashing plane. A group of criminals with guns could easily control all the exits of an office building that contains more people than an A380 and then burn it down. There are lots of ways of killing larger groups of people than can be contained by a heavy passenger jet and doing so with great ease.

SnallaBolagetOctober 5, 2010 7:23 AM

@Russel Coker; Actually, the SOP for sky marshals is to not intervene when there are "normal" problems like drunks, people PO'd about their seating etc, to avoid the exact situation you describe.

TheDoctorOctober 5, 2010 7:39 AM

Hm, SnallaBolaget, Bruce said:
"Since 9/11, approximately three things have potentially improved airline security: reinforcing the cockpit doors, passengers realizing they have to fight back and -- possibly -- sky marshals. Everything else -- all the security measures that affect privacy -- is just security theater and a waste of effort."

He went from -- possibly -- to "no, they don't"

acOctober 5, 2010 7:48 AM

@Peter Maxwell - Sounds good, but only if they give you the sedatives before the security checkpoint line; that's always the worst part of flying.

davebOctober 5, 2010 9:21 AM

"What, exactly, has changed since that was written?"

Enough time has elapsed without them achieving anything that it is no longer worth giving them the benefit of the doubt.

It often takes time to demonstrate that something is useless.

RonKOctober 5, 2010 9:26 AM

@ SnallaBolaget

> What, exactly, has changed since that was written?

Well, one supposes that Bruce changed his opinion based on observation of reality, something which includes, I presume, more up-to-date information about how much money the program costs and how many non-terrorists have been killed by sky marshals.

BTW, you might find it interesting information that the flexibility to change one's opinion based on new facts or dialog with others is a prerequisite to being a credible source of expertise. ;-)

Noble_SerfOctober 5, 2010 9:29 AM

Haven't the "bad guys" moved on to softer targets by now?

Or is it just not sexy to fix infrastructure?

No OneOctober 5, 2010 10:03 AM

@Russel Coker: Also, it's extremely difficult to remove a weapon from a proper holster if you aren't already familiar with that particular holster. (Attempting to remove by force a weapon from a proper holster if you don't know how to do it correctly should result in you lifting the wearer off the ground rather than the weapon from the holster.)

cynrhOctober 5, 2010 11:05 AM

> It's fairly well-known that if a plane is going to be taken over, it will start most likely in the back. ... Tell me if I'm missing something.

The plane controls are up front.

derfOctober 5, 2010 11:19 AM

Sky Marshalls in first class don't have to look around. They can sleep comfortably in the knowledge that they aren't needed because nothing is going to happen.

CupitOctober 5, 2010 12:37 PM

I would think that random positioning would make more sense from a security standpoint. Otherwise, step one of a hijacking is to kill everyone in first class, and check for weapons. Clive and TheDoctor might see some good from this but Paris will be upset.

Peter MaxwellOctober 5, 2010 12:40 PM

@Morten at October 5, 2010 6:15 AM

"sedating the passengers is not a very good idea. If passengers don't move around during long flights they will start dying. The rate of in-air heart attacks is going to explode, with litigation to follow. Deep-vein thrombosis is not a Good Thing."

Well, there is an upside: the passengers that expire mid journey can be dropped out over the ocean hence reducing fuel usage. Less fuel usage would mean lower environmental impact and also lower ticket prices. There are further benefits at the baggage sort.


@ac at October 5, 2010 7:48 AM

You make a good point, before the security check it is then.

Any time I've had my bags checked at security they always ask me to open them, empty the entire contents onto their desk then promptly shout "next" while I attempt to put everything back in the order it took 30mins to do before. I mean, for crying out loud, it is not easy to keep items that may cause a static discharge away from the TNT and still leave room for two pairs of jeans.

Hmmm... I should really be careful with this stuff, I've got a feeling the next flight I take may involve a cavity search.

SnallaBolagetOctober 5, 2010 2:18 PM

@RonK;
"BTW, you might find it interesting information that the flexibility to change one's opinion based on new facts or dialog with others is a prerequisite to being a credible source of expertise. ;-)"

Hehe... that's a valid point, and I agree - what might have been a better way to put it is that sky marshals don't get on the list -anymore-, indicating a status change as to one's position on the subject.

What I mean is, this isn't the first time I (or others) have commented on times when Bruce have contradicted himself - here and elsewhere without citing any news or new facts that might have facilitated such a change in opinion. I should have been clearer about that.

BTOctober 5, 2010 2:53 PM

Most of these posts reek of cynicism and ignorance. Air Marshalls are only one component of a program to deter hijackings. Like many security measures it is by no means perfect, cheap, or foolproof. Nonetheless there has not been a successful hi-jacking in this country since 9/11. Coincidence? Maybe, but until viable alternatives are developed, I am all for this. Instances of passengers identifying FAMs are vastly overstated by many in these posts. FAMs are not always big men with dark sunglasses; this isn’t Hollywood. As for FAMs sitting on a plane, doing nothing and loving life, I can assure you, it's hardly the case. Sitting inconspicuously, in a cramped seat, on a plane waiting for something bad to happen isn't fun. The novelty of all this “power and authority” wears off very quickly. It's a shame that 9/11 has become such a distant memory. Our enemy is cunning and calculated. They will hit us when we are complacent and least expect it. I know... the government is either wasting taxpayer dollars on unnecessary services or not doing enough when something awful happens. Isn’t that always the case?

Davi OttenheimerOctober 5, 2010 2:59 PM

@Clive

I see you picked up on my point about orange juice. Thanks for the reference. :)

"Since the 1970's it became increasingly clear that the result of being a hijacker was death. Most criminals don't want to die they want to enjoy the proceads of their crime."

Not sure where you get your data but I have never heard this before. I always read the opposite. Hijackers were believed to want to land and negotiate.

One of the reasons the 9/11 hijackers were not killed or immediately subdued, for example, was because no one thought they were facing certain death. The hijackers on Flight 11 said things like "nobody move please. We are going back to the airport. Don't try to make any stupid moves."The perception changed quickly when they crashed into the WTC; which is why the Air Force shot the tail off the last hijacked plane (Flight 93) still flying. They just called it passenger resistance.

jgrecoOctober 5, 2010 3:22 PM

@Davi Ottenheimer

"the Air Force shot the tail off the last hijacked plane (Flight 93) still flying"

That is quite the claim with no sources, for someone who one paragraph above that complained about somebody not listing sources.

Bruce SchneierOctober 5, 2010 4:14 PM

"The 2008 writing "Security vs. Privacy" (http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2008/01/security_vs_pri.html ) includes the following:

"'Since 9/11, approximately three things have potentially improved airline security: reinforcing the cockpit doors, passengers realizing they have to fight back and -- possibly -- sky marshals. Everything else -- all the security measures that affect privacy -- is just security theater and a waste of effort.'

"What gives?"

Even then I was hedging about sky marshals. I've since decided that they don't even deserve a "possibly." They don't help.

AvSecOctober 5, 2010 4:29 PM

The best place to defend the cockpit from is from the cockpit. That's why our pilots in the US are issued firearms.

DanielOctober 5, 2010 5:02 PM

A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE

Hey, airlines, stop whining, will ya? A first class ticket, at most, should be valued at $1,000 -- true, some times you'll sell an international last minute for $5k or even $7k, but then again, most of the times we're talking about upgrading customers using points, which I doubt you can value at more than $1,000 -- including the company's reputation, the value of being a loyal customer, etc., etc.

A new 747 goes for about $130 million. Think of it as a small type of insurance -- although not guaranteed, the chances of a marshal preventing a hijacking is relatively high, considering they board the plane with some intelligence.

So, if you have a plane flying 3 times a day, 7 days a week, and you lose $1,000 for every flight, it'll take you about 120 years for the premium to cost more than the insurance value. Heck, stop whining.

Clive RobinsonOctober 5, 2010 6:28 PM

@ Davi,

"Not sure where you get your data but I have never heard this before. I always read the opposite Hijackers were believed to want to land and negotiate."

Actually no the majority of actual hijackings prior to 1973 where carried out by various countries intel agencies most prominent being the CIA with respect to Cuba (Nixon called a halt to the tit for tat back in 1973).

In many ways it goes back to the likes of the Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Faction) formed ~1970 called in the earlier days the Baader-Meinhof group (after two of it's founders) by journolists and politicians partly to deny the RAF political legitemacy.

Originaly the RAF where of only limited interest, to European authorities as they had only killed a few people in Germany. However 1972 saw a major change in the RAF activities as they started a bombing campaign that became of concerne to other European countries, the RAF frequently claimed that what they where doing wasto free Palistine of the (illegal) Israeli occupation. Then the world took real note of the RAF in 1975 with the siege of the German Embassy in Stockholm.

After this the RAF appeared to almost disapear with only one attack the following year.

Then in 1977 they reapeared with avengance. In the early part of the year they mounted an attack to steal nuclear weapons.

Although denied at the time it appears that the attack had a very high probability of success, and it was only by chance that the fuel truck the RAF where using did not catch and explode in the way intended and the attack thus failed.

It however succeeded in sending a very very significant shock to the intel organisations and put a real scare in certain politico's in Northern Europe and the US.

Shortly there after the PFLP in support of the RAF hijacked a Lufthansa plane. It is not clear what went wrong the PFLP having hijacked many other aircraft and successfully getting their aims met. It is said it was the German Govenment under preasure from Israel.

However the four PFLP hijackers made their intentions very clear when they shot the pilot. The German special forces supported by the UK SAS put an end to the hijacking by raiding the plane and killing three of the four hijackers.

It became clear to most European countries that this making of impossible demands and then killing the crew etc when they where not met had set a trend and a change in the way hijackings where handled from then on.

Certainly in the UK the policy became one of not acceding to demands, and this later became formal and publicised policy under Margret Thatcher. Likewise for most other NATO countries.

The result of this was that in an increasing number of cases the hijackings ended with special forces raiding planes and usually killing the hijackers and remarkably few passengers.

This success is primarily due to the number of hijackers on a plane, below four the channces of a successfull entry and elimination of the hijackers is good, four and above bad, due to the likley fact of an armed hijacker mid aircraft.

You can see more with,

http://www.southasiaanalysis.org/%5Cpapers2%5Cpaper103.html

And I'm sure that your eyebrows will twitch in the upwards direction more than a couple of times when you read it. However it is a bit light on details and much of it is not in a real time line progression.

I did the spade work of putting information together on the 1970's period on Northern Europe hijacking / commandering back in the late 1990's but don't have the info any longer. I did this as part of some work on civil disaster planning with regards a terrorist attack on a fully fueled widebody out of LHR eastwards being shot down by terrorists with a heavy machine gun (of the sort PIRA where known to have access to) and coming down on West/Central London (believe me when I say you do not want to know a medium case projection let alone worst case)

It would be nice if all the facts and figures for hijacks and commandering world wide were in one place on the web but sadly not that I'm aware of (if anyone knows better please post a link).

Blue SkyOctober 5, 2010 10:29 PM

Sky marshalls bring loaded weapons on board, don't they? So they have to flash an ID or be escorted at the security checkpoint to by-pass the check. Not that many people will by-pass the check.

In smaller airports, one 'bad guy' can keep watch at the security checkpoint to see who by-passes and he can identify the marshall. In larger airports, you need one 'bad guy' per checkpoint.

MarkOctober 6, 2010 1:43 AM

@Stuart Schechter

If sky marshals are doing their job, the number of arrests should equal the number of actual terrorists.

Actually it would be equal to the number of terrorists doing things on aircraft. Which is a minority of terrorists in the first place. AFAIK anti-abortion and animal rights groups have never taken much interest in aviation.

A minority of close to zero is even closer to zero.

Hum HoOctober 6, 2010 2:41 AM

Actually what we would have needed after 9/11 was "skyscraper marshalls", people who make sure nobody places demolition charges inside buildings like WTC7...

Jonathan WilsonOctober 6, 2010 2:43 AM

@Jay from BKK
You could always put the berthing space in a bit thats accessible to the pilots from the cockpit but not from the cabin just like you can with the head.
Have a too-small-for-a-human-to-fit-through slot for passing coffee, food and other things though and it would be doable.

I cant find a cite for it but I seem to recall Israel's El Al airlines (an airline with a higher than normal risk of terrorism for obvious reasons) implemented such "segregated cockpits"

fullbirdmusicOctober 6, 2010 4:16 AM

>>The plane controls are up front.

They have to control the crew first, and convince the passengers that they're hostages and get them to cooperate because of fear.
Most hijackers aren't well-rounded enough to fly the plane themselves anyway, hence controlling everyone in the cabin first, then taking over the cockpit.
Besides, without social engineering the crew into convincing the pilots to open the cockpit door or brute forcing it open, how else would they get to the pilots (re: controls)?
In order - control the crew, control the passengers, control the cockpit, control the plane. That's why sky marshalls aren't sitting in the cockpit.

AdamOctober 6, 2010 4:33 AM

If sky marshals are always predictably flying first class, then as a terrorist it would seem prudent to kill everyone in that cabin as a precaution.

BF SkinnerOctober 6, 2010 7:10 AM

@AvSec "That's why our pilots in the US are issued firearms."

Except 'pilots' aren't 'issued' firearms. Some flight crew, not just pilots, who completed federal firearm training (Federal Flight Deck Officer) are allowed to carry a TSA firearm as part of the duties of a FFDO. A FFDO Who is a deputy Fedearl LEO of the TSA.

They must pass a pysch screening, pay for their own training and use vacation days to do it. No extra money and talk about limited jurisdiction - the flight deck.

Some. How many do you suppose?

How many do you suppose actually go through the time and effort for little reward?
Since the only rewards the right to bear arms in a cockpit and of course protect the aircraft from instant, total destruction at the hands of the ravening hoardes of terrorists slavering in coach just waiting to kill everyone in first class.

I suggest a metric showing the pilots estimation of their risk can be derived from the total number of pilots and the number who actually applied for the program. It would be very telling of the pilot risk estimation of a highjacking.

gopiOctober 6, 2010 10:28 PM

Looks like the Truthers are crawling around here...

Do I know if 9/11 was an "inside job"? I haven't *personally* verified a single thing. I'm a computer scientist, not a structural engineer.

However, having seen the quality of evidence displayed by truthers, I feel confident in saying that, if there was a shootdown or demolition coverup, they won. They succeeded in covering it up. Because the evidence shown by truthers is not compelling or convincing.

One interesting technical detail I read about re: the Pentagon plane. Some people tried to do a reconstruction of the flight path from the flight data recorder. However, their reconstruction was flawed because, as I understand it, the flight recorder had at least two time sources that resulted in the sensor readings not being in perfect sync. Also, flight data recorders and the sensors they're hooked up to are not designed for extremely high resolution flight path reconstruction. The data recorder is intended to tell you: did decompression happen before you started losing altitude? Did you lose altitude slowly or quickly? Did the pilot continue with control inputs while the plane was losing altitude? The last parts of the flight before the plane hits the ground are simply not what the system was built to validate.

PetterOctober 7, 2010 1:25 AM

My brother work in the airline industry and he is quite a bit annoyed over all 'security' as it in his words are only a 'show'.

Reinforced cockpit doors but why bother with honeycomb paper walls around the door and from some aircraft models wall to wall with the toilets. Making it as simple as punching the fist through the wall and you are in the cockpit.

Metal detector screenings for both crew and passangers that do not detect any metal in certian areas depending on how you pass them.

Or when they do discover and confiscate a small nail scissor only to allow ala carte dining with metal tableware 30 meters after the security check and simple access to 10 inch chef's knife over the counter.

And it goes on and on.

It took crew and staff a week or two to understand all the weak or non existing points or as he describes them - for show only. To project control but as aircrafts and the industri as whole are so delicate and do not allow for armouring or financial impacts they are balanced between weak security and profit and end up with pretty much wannabe security.

bob (the original bob)October 7, 2010 6:37 AM

If I was a drug dealer, I dont believe I could even dream of a better way to get product into the US than to become a Sky Marshal. So at least the Sky Marshal program makes some US Persons' lives better through cheaper drugs.

I see no reason why the seats should be free, let the government pay for the seats.

I also am willing to bet that a flight to Hawaii always has a nearly mystical need for more Sky Marshal presence whereas the one to Nebraska is deemed safe enough as is.

ChelloveckOctober 7, 2010 11:19 AM

@BT: I notice there haven't been any successful in-flight tiger attacks in this country since 9/11, either. Coincidence, or the Air Marshals doing a good job?

It's not that 2001 is too distant for us to remember or that we've grown complacent. It's that the rules of engagement are now different, and Air Marshals are superfluous. Prior to 2001-09-11, the rules were you played along with the hijackers, let them land in Cuba (or wherever), and almost everyone eventually gets out okay. That changed with the attacks on Sep. 11. The new rule is, don't let the bad guys get control because then *nobody's* walking away. Passengers will now fight back against hijackers, because no one expects it to end with a hostage negotiation like before. The presence or absence of Air Marshals on board doesn't make a lick of difference.

AndrewOctober 7, 2010 3:17 PM

>> Actually what we would have needed after 9/11 was "skyscraper marshalls", people who make sure nobody places demolition charges inside buildings like WTC7... Posted by: Hum Ho at October 6, 2010 2:41 AM

We have them now. They are called security guards. 29 of them died on September 11th.

AndrewOctober 7, 2010 3:27 PM

>> It's a shame that 9/11 has become such a distant memory. ...

>> They will hit us when we are complacent and least expect it.

>> Posted by: BT

Bruce is often quoted as saying, "Refuse to be afraid."

Shall we live in an endless state of war preparing for the inevitable next attack?

You, sir, seem to think that fear is good for the little people. In this view you are little different from any other state-sponsored terrorist.

Organizations and bureaucracies prepare for yesterday's threats. Preparing for 9/11 now is a decade too late. I'd rather enlist everyone in being prudent and watchful, instead of scaring people then providing false reassurance that 'the government will take care of it.'

Additional training and equipment for flight attendants with the money we presently spend on air marshals would be a far, far better use of the money. There is only a 5% chance than an air marshal will be on a flight; 100% chance that a flight attendant will be. Also 100% chance that motivated passengers will be aboard. "In the event of anyone approaching the front of the aircraft, please help us grab them and drag them to the rear of the aircraft. Thank you :)"

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