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!!