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.”

The training and qualifications required to become an air marshal are also rigorous, which may prevent potential candidates from applying.

Training and Qualifications to Become an Air Marshal

Firearms Training

Air marshals receive extensive firearms training, including marksmanship, weapon safety, and tactical shooting exercise.

Training also includes scenarios that replicate real-world threats.

Close-Quarters Combat Training 

Air marshals receive training in close-quarters combat techniques, such as, grappling, and disarming potential threats, within the confined space of an aircraft cabin.

Counter-Terrorism Tactics

Air marshals learn to identify potential threats, evaluate situations, and take appropriate action to neutralize threats.

Part of the training includes assessing risk factors and making split-second decisions to protect passengers and crew.

Physical and Psychological Assessments

Air marshals must meet and maintain pretty rigorous physical fitness standards.

Psychological assessments are also conducted to gauge an air marshal’s mental fitness, including evaluating their ability to handle stress, make quick decisions, and remain focused during high-pressure situations.

How Often and How Many Air Marshals Are There on a Flight?

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.

TWA N64339 aircraft
The N64339 aircraft involved in the hijacking of Trans World Airlines Flight 847

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.

International 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.

Air 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.

Air Marshals Weren’t on the 9/11 Flights

If you’re wondering if there was an air marshal on any of the 9/11 flights, 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.

Air Marshals Are Paid Well

According to Glassdoor, a U.S. air marshal has an average salary of $78,827 a year, with a total pay of $92,818 per year.

Number of Air Marshals in the U.S.

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.

Air Marshals Carry Guns

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.

SIG Sauer P229 Gun
A SIG Sauer P229 gun that air marshals carry

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.

Ella Dunham, a Freelance Travel Journalist and Marketing Manager, boasts an impressive career spanning eight years in the travel and tourism sectors.

Honored as one of "30 Under 30" by TTG Media (the world’s very first weekly travel trade newspaper), a "Tour Operator Travel Guru" and "Legend Award" winner, Ella is also a Fellow of the Institute of Travel, a Member of the Association of Women Travel Executives, has completed over 250 travel modules, and hosts travel-focused segments on national radio shows where she provides insights on travel regulations and destinations.

Ella has visited over 40 countries (with 10 more planned this year).