October 24, 2010

A Question of Restraint

This week, two Federal Air Marshals (FAMs) on a Continental flight to Brazil became tangled in a legal/political scandal when they fled the country after being charged with assault.

Their 'crime'? Arresting a woman who became unruly on the flight and actually bit one of the marshalls. The twist? Said woman is the wife of a senior Brazilian court judge. Oooh, tricky!!

The news reports that they "fled the country using alternate travel documents rather than face what they believed to be trumped-up charges, sources said."

What piqued my interest in this story was the circumstances surrounding why the marshals acted. According to the article:

"a female passenger who appeared to be intoxicated tried to serve herself drinks by going to the plane's galley, one source said. The plane's crew asked air marshals to intervene, and two marshals approached the woman, who began struggling with them."

The woman was arrested after biting one of the marshals. What jumped out at me is this part:

"The plane's crew asked air marshals to intervene"

Really?? In an ideal world, the cabin crew should have no idea who or where the air marshals are. Only the captain should know. Indeed, this was the case at two carriers I worked for. The only way we'd know a marshal was onboard was if something happened and they chose to act. There was no way in the world we'd have any clue who they were (aside from our own guesses, which were probably wrong) and the captain would not tell us unless there was a very good reason for him to.

Why? Well, after 9/11 the reasons are obvious. Reduce the amount of people who know the identity of the marshal/s, reduce the amount of people who could be coerced into talking.

I accept it as a sad reality of my job that should a hijacker/crazy person bent on taking over the plane threaten my life, the pilots would have to let me die rather than give in to demands to access the flight deck. (I wouldn't have it any other way- one is far better than three hundred!)

So this does make me wonder, should the crew have known the identity of the marshals, and secondly, was it appropriate for them to ask the FAM to intervene?

In my opinion, no. I say this with the disclaimer that I was not there, but going by the facts we know so far, an unruly passenger would not have me asking for help from a Federal Air Marshal (FAM) -if I even knew who they were.

By asking them to act, the crew have now compromised their cover, potentially letting someone with sinister intentions take them out in order to gain control of the aircraft unimpeded. Sure, the passenger could have been threatening the crew, but on the modern jetliner, a crew should be able to take down and restrain an unruly passenger if necessary, and has the training & equipment to do so. Unless the passenger was making an attempt to take control of the plane or enter the flight deck, the marshals should not have been put in the position to intervene.

Then, of course, the possibility is raised that in fact the marshals chose to act. In this case, they are trained to make that decision but one does wonder what really went on if in fact they were the ones who initiated the intervention.

Just for some background, here's a link to the TSA page on the FAM Program. Interestingly, it uses the phrase "defeat hostile attacks".

While I know having a passenger freak out on a flight is scary, I doubt you could really call it a hostile act in the context of anti-terrorism.

Wikipedia mentions in relation to the Canadian CACPP program, which notes that "APOs, however, will not be involved in controlling unruly passengers". Interestingly, the article notes that in this case, flight attendants and pilots ARE aware of the presence of marshal/s. In light of this incident, it does beg the question- is telling the cabin crew the indentity of a marshal appropriate?

What do you think? As a traveller, would you feel comfortable knowing your crew can ID an air marshal? Would you as crew be comfortable with that information? If a country decides that crew should know who the marshals are, what about making that voluntary? I personally would feel more comfortable having the choice to decline knowing that information. We don't know what we might say when push comes to shove.

Leave a comment & tell me your thoughts, or as always Tweet me!!


  1. At my carrier (I'm a flight attendant) we always know who the FAMs are and where they are sitting... I actually do think it's important for all crew to know because if God forbid someone were to try to take over the flight deck, and then these guys jumped up to defend it - how would we know that they were actually who they said they were - FAMs, and not a part of the plot?

    On that note, it's the FAMs job to PROTECT THE FLIGHT DECK, not intervene with unruly intoxicated passengers, UNLESS the flight attendants really thought his woman was trying to take the plane over, which I doubt was the case. Just based on what I know of this story, I do NOT think the flight attendants should have asked the FAMs to intervene at all. But yes, I do think it's important for all crew to know where they are sitting.

    Thanks for letting me share my .02!

  2. Something in that article does seem a little iffy... crew asking the air marshals to subdue an intoxicated woman just doesn't seem right. If it is true then yes I think it's wrong of them to ask the air marshals to do a job which the crew have been trained themselves to do.

  3. Wow, I think that's the fastest response I've had to a blog post in a long time!

    Thanks for the input guys.

    I can see that knowing who the marshalls are can be important in knowing who the good/bad guys are, so really it must be dependent on airline/authority regulation- at one company I worked for, we were told the marshalls would identify themselves in a certain way so that we would know to let them get on with it.

    Can't say any more than that, perhaps the intention is to not have any one policy that can be guessed.

  4. I think it's important for the entire crew to know who the FAMs are and where they're sitting as well. Like the first commenter said, we need to know who the good guys and bad guys are.

    I would think that if there was a situation where a terrorist was actually threatening a flight attendant in order to get that kind of information the FAMs probably would be getting involved anyway.

    As far as flight attendants asking for help with a drunk passenger? Totally inappropriate. I don't know any flight attendant that would do that because we all know how important FAMs are to the security of the flight. It seems like some information was missing from the story. Perhaps it did seem as though the passenger was threatening the cockpit and that's why the FAMs were asked to step in.

    Also? Bummer for them. Especially since they were just trying to help.

  5. I like the idea of the marshalls being unknown generally. They shouldn't have intervened and the drunk woman should have been handled by the crew. Surely this was not the first time the staff had drunk passengers.

  6. At my airline QF (and I fly domestically) we are not supposed to know who they are, just when they are onboard. Unfortunately there are not that many Air Marshals in the Australian program so we recognise many of them, they always fly in pairs, are always platinum frequent flyers and it's become a game to spot them. They are there ONLY to protect the integrity of the flight deck door and will NEVER intervene in another incident - even if someone is being killed, as it may be a decoy incident. We would NEVER, NEVER ask for their assistance and we know we would never get it. But of course that's just the Australian Federal Air Marshal Program.

  7. Interesting to read about this, especially with the fact that on some airlines don't know who the FAs are.

    Btw, sorry to use your blog to get this message across, but Melissa's blog needs immediate Air Marshall's attention...It seems to not exist anymore :(

  8. ok without getting into specifics it depends on country as well, U.S. we know who and where. but thats all i will say. now I believe the story is total BS. It is an assumption that the F/A's asked them to intervene not fact. Remember reporters generally know jack when it comes to aviation, dont be so quick to sell out the crew.

  9. As far as i was aware in my old airline we didnt have FAMs or if we did no FAs knew and the Pilots didnt let on that they knew either.

    I do agree that in a hostile situation it would be good to know who the good guys were. At the same time, i would hesitate to trust some of the FAs i worked with that knowledge in sense that they may be stupid enough to ask them to help in a passenger disturbance despite training telling them otherwise.

  10. There are pages on this on pprune, not surprisingly.

    The mandate for US Air Marshals is to prevent terrist attacks on the aircraft, which is not a drunk passenger in a galley. I agree, parts seem to be missing from the story.

    I suspect their quick departure using 'alternate documents' was arranged by mutual consent at fairly high levels.

  11. We always know where the FAM are sitting. That way we wont try to stop them when they they have to stop passenger that think they wont follow the laws on a flight. In the USA not following the instructions of the flight crew can get you arrested and a hefty fine. The FAMs just did their job. I have had FAMs throw people off planes during boarding and have seen them take over in these situations. We have FAMs on almost every flight I work.

  12. Was it possible that the flight crew did not know that there were Air Marshals on board and simply put out a general call for Air Marshal Assistance, a la "Is there a doctor in the house?"

  13. Thanks everyone for your comments. This was certainly a hot topic!

    Fred, it's possible but going by what my colleagues have said here, it seems that even if they know who/where the marshalls are, crew would not be asking them to intervene.

    In my opinion, if the rowdy passenger is getting out of control and the crew can't handle it, that is what Able Bodied Passengers are for. I know it sounds silly to bypass someone with training in restraining people, but the higher priority is protecting the cockpit and the identity of the marshalls in case the 'rowdy passenger' is just a diversion to find out who they are.

    Imagine if marshalls acted on a diversion & then were taken out because they made themselves known. There'd now be one less defense against a hostile action.

    Of course, in this day & age passengers would likely intervene at that point, a la 9/11.


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