Air marshals play an important role in protecting passengers from the risk of terrorist activity, aircraft piracy and other crimes.
So you might think that there would be an air marshal on every flight.
However, this isn’t the case. Air marshals can be found on approximately 5% of flights.
The main reason why there aren’t air marshals on every flight is because it simply wouldn’t be cost-effective (the cost for each air marshal is estimated to be around $3,300 per flight).
As there are thousands of flights that take place domestically each day in the USA alone, not to mention international flights, to say that putting an air marshal on every single flight would cost a significant amount would be an understatement.
Instead, the TSA uses a “threat-based matrix to strategically deploy Federal Air Marshals.”
Is There an Air Marshal on Every Flight? (Domestic vs. International Flights)
Domestic Flights (USA)
The Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) was formed in 1961 in response to domestic hijackings.
Until 1985, air marshals were almost exclusively found on domestic U.S. flights.
But due to the hijacking of TWA Flight 847, the FAM switched its focus to international flights.
It wasn’t until the events of 9/11 that the focus once again shifted to including far more domestic routes.
Air marshals can be found on approximately 5% of domestic U.S. flights. One or two air marshals can typically be found on domestic flights.
Air marshals are also found on international flights, but less frequently than on domestic flights.
However, while one or two air marshals can be assigned to a domestic flight, up to four air marshals can typically be found on international flights.
The 5% of air marshals found on commercial flights includes international flights, though the exact figure and differential between domestic and international flights is not known.
An interesting yet worrying fact about air marshals assigned to international flights is that 84% are sleep-deprived or deficient for international flight assignments.
In 2002, the Aircraft Protection Operations (APO) Program was implemented in the UK to protect civilian passenger aircraft.
Not much is known about this program due to the sensitivity of the operation and very few details being publicly released.
The Canadian Air Carrier Protection/Protective Program (CACPP) began on September 17, 2002.
marshals in Canada are known as “aircraft protective officers” (APOs).
They are assigned to selected domestic and international flights and all flights to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
After 9/11, Australia instituted an air security officer (ASO) program under the Australian Federal Police.
In Australia, air marshals are referred to as sky marshals and operate on both domestic and international flights.
Air marshals are also utilized in several other countries including Austria, Ireland, India, Israel, Pakistan, and Singapore.
How Many Air Marshals Are There?
It is not possible to give an exact figure of how many air marshals there are.
This is because it is considered Sensitive Security Information (SSI).
According to the TSA, this is information that, if publicly released, would be detrimental to transportation security.
However, we can estimate that there are approximately 3,000-5,000 air marshals in the USA.
Are Air Marshals Armed?
Yes, an air marshal is authorized to carry a gun and make arrests on a flight. An air marshal will either carry a SIG Sauer P229 or SIG Sauer P239.
Related: Do Pilots Carry Guns?
How to Spot an Air Marshal on Your Flight
While there is no surefire way to spot an air marshal every single time, there are a few indicators, so you can narrow down the possibilities on your next flight.
Typically, an air marshal will:
- Have no or very little luggage
- Board late
- Be traveling alone
- Sit in an aisle seat close to the back of the plane
- Not sleep
- Be more likely to be male
While the flight attendants on the plane will know of any air marshals on the plane and who they are, they are not allowed to disclose this information.
So there is no point asking. In fact, if you do ask, you may be viewed suspiciously.
9/11 and Air Marshals
If you’re wondering if there was an air marshal on 9/11, the answer is no.
This is because before 9/11, air marshals only flew internationally. In any case, at this time, there were only 33 active federal air marshals too.
So even if air marshals were allowed to fly on domestic flights at this time, considering the thousands of domestic flights that take place a day, the odds of an air marshal being on one of the 9/11 flights would have been very low.
9/11 had a long-lasting effect on the Federal Air Marshal Service.
Due to the events that took place that day, President George W. Bush ordered a rapid expansion of the Federal Air Marshal Service, which included the hiring, training, and activation of 600 air marshals within one month.
Thousands more in the following months and years would follow.