Federal Air Marshal Program Useless?

Crime, Politics

Yesterday a federal air marshal restrained a man who reportedly tried to set his shoes on fire.  The man was an ambassador for Qatar with full diplomatic immunity.

As details trickle out, it appears this story may be more of a man getting caught smoking in the bathroom than attempted terrorism. Nonetheless, it is bringing a bit of attention to the Federal Air Marshal program.

While most people appreciate the program, not everyone does. In particular, Tennessee Republican congressman John Duncan, Jr, last year called the Federal Air Marshal program “needless” and “worthless,” saying the $860 million spent per year on the program is a “total waste.” He also described the job of an air marshal as “cushy and easy” because it is simply to “sit on an airplane and fly back and forth, back and forth.”

The congressman, in a release on his website, homed in on the fact that only four arrests were made last year, which comes out to be around $200 million per arrest. He also notes that more air marshals were arrested than people arrested by air marshals.

So is the program really a waste?

Maybe, but simply looking at the cost per arrest seems to be a shortsighted way of evaluating it. After all, it is meant to be, in large part, a deterrent against terrorism, not just a last resort for stopping terrorism in the air. Plus, even if the sole purpose of the program is to stop terrorism in the air, does anyone reasonably expect terrorism to occur on a regular basis?

Interestingly enough, the Israeli airline El Al, which is often praised as the gold standard in airline security, puts at least one air marshal on every single flight. However, as USA Today points out, El Al’s flight volume is tiny fraction of U.S. airlines’, which means copying their methods may not be practical.