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Sky Marshalls – To be or not to be

passengers-519008_1280I was getting ready to slam Adam Minter here about this article, then I read through it carefully. He has several good points and from what I can tell, this is a fairly well researched piece.

First, it’s hard to measure deterrence. Can anyone tell me how often a criminal decided to steal another car besides yours just because you had your doors locked and they didn’t? Air marshals are a deterrence. On 9/11, hijackers didn’t have to take into account what to do if there was an air marshal on board because the chances were nil. Now, they must. And lets not assume that the next hijacking will be by guys with box cutters and 4″ blade knives. It’s likely to be by guys with guns and grenades that have been smuggled on board by confederates.

Second, a hardened cockpit door doesn’t do much to keep the bad guys out when the hijackers can force their way in by killing passengers and threatening to kill more until the pilots open the door. Let’s not assume that because 9/11 gave us one model of hijacking, that all hijackings will play out that way. History tells us that locked cockpit doors only delay the hijacking, not prevent it. And history also tells us that coercion is the way most hijackers get into the cockpit.

Pilots with guns – another controversial program but I actually agree with it because if the hijackers can get through the door, someone with a firearm has a chance of preventing the plane from being taken over. Plus, hijackers have to take this into account. Kind of like breaking into a house with a dog inside – you have to account for that variable, whereas if you know there isn’t a dog inside the residence, that’s one less thing to worry about.

The statistic about how much it costs to save a life is very interesting and likely accurate. However, can you imagine if someone had quoted this statistic in the days following 9/11? “Sure, no worries, we could have protected 3,000 people but it was cost prohibitive.”

What’s happening is what I fear would happen. It’s 12 years after 9/11 and we’re slowly going back to sleep in aviation security. That said, I agree with Minter that it’s time to take a look at the air marshal program. It’s unfair to evaluate the effectiveness of the air marshals based on arrests – that’s like measuring the effectiveness of a Brinks guard at arresting bad guys who try to steal from the truck – it’s a different mission. Air marshals have a different mission than your routine law enforcement officer. Air marshals have a very important mission that cannot be measured in ways you measure normal law enforcement operations.

A little known fact is that air marshals already work with local and federal law enforcement agencies in investigations of criminal and terrorist activities, participate in TSA’s Playbook program and are experts on protecting flights. But attrition rates, lifestyle (I’ve heard it can be incredibly boring to be an air marshal) and recent issues about air marshall  transgressions have brought the issue to the forefront.

Minter argues that hijackings in the 60s and 70s didn’t decrease until after the introduction of screening procedures and equipment. And he’s right. But, screening is just one layer in a comprehensive security system – a layered system that tries to ensure that a failure of one layer doesn’t result in a penetration of the entire system. Plus, what’s not mentioned is that when passenger and carry on bag screening started, criminals, terrorists and nut jobs who commit acts of air terror, evolved in their approach and strategies as well. Air terror reduced, but didn’t stop. Also, yes hijackings were reduced, but airline bombings increased as other holes in the system were identified.

Air marshals are a vital part of the layered system, but it’s time to evaluate its effectiveness and adjust as needed. The bad guys evolve their strategies and so must we.

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