Air travel is back, but you might not recognize it anymore. Not a day goes by lately without news headlines and videos on social media of out-of-control airline passengers fighting each other and fighting airline employees. The exact reason for the uptick in violence is a complicated issue. Is it too much alcohol at airport bars and in flight? Perhaps it’s the enforcement of mask wearing onboard. Or maybe it’s just a society that is increasingly angry and violent. Either way, an airline union, TWU Local 556, has called on the Federal Air Marshals (FAMS) to deal with out-of-control passengers at 30,000 feet. The FAMS, in typical fashion, have answered the call as they have on a variety of enforcement duties they have in the past. But it begs the question: is the federal government’s anti-hijacking force the best answer? And is 30,000 feet the place to be dealing with these mostly preventable issues?
The modern-day Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) was born in the ashes of 9/11. They rapidly expanded from a force of 33 to an organization of thousands within a few short months. To be sure, there were growing pains along the way, but the Federal Air Marshal Service is a proud organization staffed with mostly dedicated, selfless employees. The Federal Air Marshal Service is primarily an anti-hijacking force but has proven to be a versatile force that has been used over the years in executive protection, border enforcement, counterterrorism investigations and disaster relief.
Over the years the Air Marshal Service has been under constant scrutiny, having their very existence questioned by the airlines and members of Congress. U. S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., went so far as to call for the elimination of the whole program, saying, The Federal Air Marshal Service is, “the most needless, useless agency in the entire federal government.”
But that didn’t stop others in Congress from having FAMs assigned to their flights after the recent events at the Capitol.
In 2019, the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General (IG) conducted a review of the Federal Air Marshal Service and recommended slashing $394 million of the agency’s $803 million budget. The advice was not heeded, but the writing was on the wall. After years of criticism the ranks of FAMS began to dwindle down through attrition.
So, blowing in the winds of change, the Federal Air Marshal Service is now being asked to intervene in a flying Jerry Springer Show, replete with mask scofflaws, domestic disputes and mutual combatants instead of what they should be focusing on, terrorism.
Long gone is the Golden Age of travel, when people would get dressed up, line up in an orderly fashion and be happy to travel. Look around airports today and you will see frantic, agitated people running through terminals to push their way onto a plane with non-existent service and less leg and elbow room than ever before. Modern air travel is about the airlines squeezing more revenue out of every square inch of that aircraft. When you have unstable people flying it’s enough to push them over the edge. It sometimes pushes well-adjusted individuals over the edge.
Another factor is discounted rates. What we are seeing is what school teachers, bartenders and police officers have been seeing for a very long time, an increase in out of control people in society. When you offer $69 fares that’s what you get. The FAA has received 3,200 reports of unruly passengers and initiated 487 investigations on unruly passengers this year already. In 2020, there were only 183, in 2019, there were 146. This is the new norm of flying. The flight attendants are forced to play mask police with people that can’t or won’t follow basic directions, rules that they agreed to when they purchased the ticket.
You don’t have to be General Stonewall Jackson to know you don’t want to have a fight at cruising altitude. The last place problem passengers should be dealt with is in the air. There are very limited resources, tight space, and innocent passengers packed in. There are no police officers experienced in dealing with out-of-control people, no mental health professionals and no emergency room doctors standing by to deal with injuries.
To be sure, Air Marshals in the normal performance of their duties will protect the aircraft, flight crew and passengers, it’s what they have done since their inception, with remarkable efficiency. But many of these problems could be dealt with on the ground. More effort needs to be made to identify the warning signs of problem passengers through the security and boarding process. If they are a problem there, they are likely to be a problem later in the air.
In the past, Behavior Detection Teams have been used to identify potential terrorists, smugglers and those involved in human trafficking in airports. Behavior detection came under scrutiny in the past, and was viewed as problematic due to racial bias concerns. But behavior detection done right, is without any bias as it is rooted in the science of behavior and nothing else. Among other indicators, Behavior Detection Teams trigger off of signs like agitation and anger. These are exactly the behaviors that should be identified and dealt with on the ground and, if necessary, passengers should be denied boarding if they are deemed unfit to fly.
The number of in-flight emergencies we are seeing should be much lower. If there is any hope to curtail these incidents, it will take the cooperation of airport authorities, stakeholders and Federal Air Marshals. Airport restaurants should limit alcohol service and airlines should staff more gate agents at the gate. Also, efforts should be made to increase police presence and to use Federal Air Marshals in airport terminals to detect issues on the ground with flight assigned Federal Air Marshals dealing with in-flight issues as an absolute last resort.