They're America's flying enforcers, the federal air marshals - the last line of defense in the case of an attack on an airborne plane.
But since two marshals shot and killed an unarmed mentally ill man earlier this month, problems within the small, secretive agency have again come to light. The Federal Air Marshal Service is beset by persistent challenges from morale to training to top-heavy management, sources say - so much so that the nation risks having too few marshals to protect commercial aviation.
Although the exact number of air marshals is a closely guarded secret because of national-security concerns, two officials within the service provided estimates to the Monitor out of concern that, as one of them put it, "the public is at risk." Both sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they risked sanctions by speaking openly. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which oversees the service, counters that the public, even during the heavily traveled holiday season, is adequately protected.
"We'll be the first to admit that we can't be on every flight," says TSA spokesman Dave Adams. "But [for people traveling by air], this holiday season there's a good chance that there will be a federal air marshal on one of their connecting flights."
On average, about 25,000 to 30,000 commercial airline flights take off each day. The service's goal, which is called the Flight Coverage Index, is to ensure that air marshals are on 3 percent of the flights, according to several sources. But they contend that goal is rarely reached because there aren't enough marshals.
A published estimate has put the total of air marshals at roughly 3,000; the Monitor's two independent sources contend that the number of active, frontline marshals ranges from 1,900 to 2,100. And in some of the service's 21 field offices, as many as 25 percent of them are grounded for health and other reasons, says one of the sources. Since they work in teams and fly what the TSA calls "targeted, critical flights" - such as New York-Los Angeles and from Latin America - covering the requisite number of flights can be challenging.
Those numbers are not accurate, says the TSA's Mr. Adams, who says frontline personnel do not have access to the same information as management. Furthermore, he says, the TSA has made strides in addressing many of the concerns.
Still, hundreds of air marshals plan to leave the service and that could jeopardize the public, the sources say.
"If you're a politician or a bureaucrat, this is a great program to make people feel good and to show that you're doing something to make them safer," says Andrew Thomas, an aviation-security expert at the University of Akron. "But obviously, there's a big difference between what's presented to the public and how the program actually works."
The service, created in 1968 to deal with the threat of hijackers, had dwindled to 33 active marshals prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In their aftermath, Congress ordered that the numbers be increased significantly, reportedly to around 5,000. Thousands of law-enforcement officers applied.
But they soon found themselves in what many believed was an untenable security situation, says a former air marshal. They were required to wear jackets at all times - which some marshals referred to as the "kill me first" dress code because it made them stand out. They had to identify themselves to airline personnel, often in front of passengers. They complained of long hours, unresponsive management, and no coherent way to report problems - as well as the lack of a career path.
Many of those who complained found themselves retaliated against, either given desk jobs or investigated more than once for alleged infractions of policy, sources say. As a result, the American Civil Liberties Union sued on behalf of one air marshal. In the meantime, the service was bumped from agency to agency within the Department of Homeland Security, compounding management problems.
After peaking at 4,800 in 2002, sources say, the force shrank dramatically, due to attrition and compounding health problems from excessive flying.
While the TSA has changed some of the most controversial policies, like the required dress code, the service still "lacks adequate management controls to help ensure that mission-related incidents that affect air marshals' ability to operate discreetly are recorded, tracked, and addressed," the Government Accountability Office said in a November report. It also recommended the service do more to ensure a good career path to help with "retention and morale."
To address those issues, the service has set up a working group of marshals from around the country so they can bring their concerns to management in Washington, according to Adams. Earlier this month, it tested a new program that would have air marshals also work alongside local law enforcement in patrolling trains, bus stations, and ferries. That would allow the service to expand and create more ground-based career opportunities.
"We're actually taking a wait-and-see attitude with this," says John Amat, executive vice president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, which represents about 1,300 air marshals.