America's most powerful weapon in the fight to keep its skies secure may be the diminutive woman sitting next to you: She could be an armed federal air marshal.
Experts in marksmanship, explosives, and the minimal use of potentially lethal force, undercover FAMs, as they're known, are taking to America's skies in large numbers.
"We had company last night," says one relieved member of a transcontinental flight crew. "We can't tell the passengers they're aboard, but this is a show of force."
Since Sept. 11, the small, elite corps of marshals that flew mostly on international flights has stepped into high gear on the domestic front. FBI and other law-enforcement agencies are augmenting their ranks, and the Federal Aviation Administration has put out an urgent call for new recruits.
For critics of the nation's aviation security system, the rapid deployment of FAM forces on domestic flights is long overdue. The presence of armed marshals has proved a successful deterrent in other countries, particularly Israel, where terrorist acts can be a
"If the person who wants to hijack is extraordinarily creative and does not care whether they die, really the only defense you have against them would be the air marshals," says James Ahearn, a security consultant and author in Commerce, Ga.
The idea of placing armed security guards on planes got off the ground in 1962, after an American plane was hijacked to Cuba. Eighteen FAA employees volunteered to basically ride shotgun in plainclothes.
From that grew what became known as the Sky Marshals program, which flourished in the 1970s. In 1985, after the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 to Beirut, Lebanon, the program was expanded, renamed the Federal Air Marshal program, and the marshals were made official federal law-enforcement officers.
For security reasons, their numbers have never been made public. But it's reported that during a succession of hijackings in the 1970s, as many as 1,000 undercover armed travelers were in the skies, mostly on international flights. An additional 2,300 military personnel and US Customs officers augmented their forces at one time.
But then, their numbers reportedly began to shrink. They were reinforced in the mid-1980s, only to shrink again. By Sept. 11, with concerns about security waning and budget constraints mounting, there were reportedly only 100 or so air marshals deployed, and those were mostly on international flights.
"It came in and grew when there was a rash of hijackings. Then the hijackings kind of went away, and it shrank," says Steve Elson, a former FAA security expert and long-time critic of the agency's security systems. "That's typical of any security program. It's gone up and down over the years."
In the past, the American aviation industry had an ambivalent attitude toward the air marshals. While they may look like any other tourist or business traveler, the marshals don't pay to fly - they're basically revenue losers. The fact that they're armed also raised alarms. The last thing people in the aviation industry wanted was a firefight at 35,000 feet.
In 1996, a representative of the Air Transport Association, the major airlines' trade association, told Aviation and Space Technology Week magazine that the airports' checkpoint screening was a more effective deterrent than the presence of the armed marshals.
That stance changed dramatically after Sept. 11. The airlines were one of the first to call for a massive infusion of air marshals on domestic flights. The FAA responded, putting out calls for new recruits and posting the job listing on its website FAA.gov almost immediately.
"The basic message now is that the program is being expanded greatly," says Rebecca Trexler of the FAA. "Air marshals have the highest firearms qualifications in the federal government, as well as judgment qualifications, so they're highly skilled and trained to use lethal force, if necessary."
The marshals used to help out in medical emergencies and sometimes with unruly passengers. But no more. Unless absolutely necessary, they don't want to tip anyone off to their presence. The premium now is on anonymity, and their focus is to protect the plane, passengers, and crew from any individual posing a terrorist threat.
"You'd never guess in a million years these guys were the federal marshals," says the member of the flight crew. "I'd never have guessed it was them."