Federal air marshals are a last line of defense against terrorists bent on attacking U.S. airliners. As the holiday season kicks off, U.S. News & World Report raises questions about how well the force can do its job. “The program was put together very quickly and with very little thought,” says Darryl Jenkins, former head of the Aviation Institute at George Washington University. The House Judiciary Committee is asking Air Marshal Service Director Thomas Quinn about his clean-cut dress code, marshal morale, and the number of supervisors who have quit. Armed with guns–and personal digital assistants they use to file surveillance reports–the marshals aim to “detect, deter, and defeat hostile acts targeting U.S. air carriers, airports, passengers, and crews.” There are up to 6,000 full-time agents–the exact number is classified–and the government plans to spend $663 million on the program next year.
Sources say Quinn will be able to train and deploy at least 200 more marshals with the $50 million raise Congress is giving the service next year, but it won’t be enough to make up for the marshals expected to leave. About 10 percent of the new marshals resigned between 9/11 and July 2003, according to the Government Accountability Office. Quinn says the current annual attrition rate is about 6.3 percent. “Our challenge has been to retrain and replace people,” says Rep. John Mica, chairman of the House aviation subcommittee. The potential for boredom and burnout is high. Quinn wants to rotate marshals through on-the-ground duties, like patrolling airports, so they don’t get stale.