Wednesday's shooting of an unarmed airline passenger in Miami is casting fresh scrutiny on the Federal Air Marshals Service, the nation's last line of defense in the many-layered aviation security apparatus.
Few security experts question the actions of the air marshals who fired on Rigoberto Alpizar after he behaved erratically and reportedly said he had a bomb in his backpack. Within the context of their training, they say, the marshals acted appropriately.
But many question the training itself - as well as the way the federal government has handled the Federal Air Marshals Service (FAMS) since 9/11, when the small security agency with fewer than three dozen marshals was ramped up to several thousand in a matter of months.
"All of this was created under tremendous pressure, as fast as they could, and the fact is that there are holes all over it," says Rich Gritta, an aviation expert at the University of Portland in Oregon. "There's a lot of stuff that they really never had the time to think through, so they're always trying to tweak it. When you do that, it can cause confusion, morale problems, and some people to lose faith in the system."
Since 9/11, the service has been bumped from agency to agency within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The Inspector General and the General Accountability Office have issued reports critical of initial screening and training of new federal air marshals, as well as of the DHS response to concerns of air marshals themselves - about things such as how dress codes and other mandates might interfere with their mission by exposing their identities. Low morale remains a problem, some experts say.
DHS officials say that the problems have been resolved, that training is excellent and ongoing, and that morale among marshals is high. "We're constantly aware and vigilant about the job they do. There are no morale problems at all, and the men and women are doing an outstanding job seven days a week, 24 hours a day," says Dave Adams, DHS spokesman for the FAMS. "Their response in this case was textbook."
But the shooting at Miami International Airport on an American Airlines jetway - the first ever by a federal air marshal - signifies that training must be improved, critics say, particularly in light of two significant changes in the nation's skies. On Dec. 22, the Transportation Security Administration will allow passengers toting certain sharp items, such as scissors and screwdrivers, to board planes. At the same time, with more people flying, passenger complaints have spiked 30 percent in the past year, and reported incidents of unruly passengers and air rage have jumped as well.
"The federal air marshals have been trained to deal with terrorists and how to fire their weapons, obviously effectively, given what happened [Wednesday]," says Andrew Thomas, an aviation security expert at the University of Akron in Ohio. "But the question needs to be asked: Has that training been upgraded to deal with this rise again in air rage and the introduction of these new items on Dec. 22? If somebody shows up with a knife and is going to stab a flight attendant or start stabbing themselves, do we shoot them?"
Among flight crews who are regularly in contact with air marshals, some say there's been confusion and mission creep since the FAM service was ramped up. Initially, marshals were clear that their mandate was to protect the cockpit, and they told flight crews they wouldn't respond to problems at the back of the plane, unless they were life-threatening. That was in part to keep their cover from being blown. Indeed, marshals are trained to distinguish between a possible terrorist ruse to draw them out and the bad behavior of a drunken or disturbed passenger.
"This is all part of the training they receive, and they continue to receive it at all 21 field offices after they've graduated from the academy," says Mr. Adams, the DHS/FAM spokesman.
But some flight crews see a change.
"Initially they'd say, 'We have one purpose and that is to protect the cockpit,' and if [an incident] didn't pertain to someone taking over the airplane, they weren't going to get involved," says a pilot for a major airline, who is not authorized to speak openly to the press. Now, according to the pilot, air marshals say they won't let something bad happen in the back of the airplane. "Their role has evolved," the pilot says.
Most acknowledge that the marshals have a very difficult job. "They're caught in a no-win situation," says Professor Gritta. "It's horrible that someone was killed, especially because there was no bomb. But they acted the way they should have, as far as I can see. If he did have a bomb and it went off, everybody would be wondering why they didn't do their job."