Wednesday's shooting of an unarmed airline passenger in Miami is
casting fresh scrutiny on the Federal Air Marshals Service, the
nation's last line of defense in the many-layered aviation security
Few security experts question the actions of the air marshals who
fired on Rigoberto Alpizar after he behaved erratically and
reportedly said he had a bomb in his backpack. Within the context of
their training, they say, the marshals acted appropriately.
But many question the training itself - as well as the way the
federal government has handled the Federal Air Marshals Service
(FAMS) since 9/11, when the small security agency with fewer than
three dozen marshals was ramped up to several thousand in a matter
"All of this was created under tremendous pressure, as fast as
they could, and the fact is that there are holes all over it," says
Rich Gritta, an aviation expert at the University of Portland in
Oregon. "There's a lot of stuff that they really never had the time
to think through, so they're always trying to tweak it. When you do
that, it can cause confusion, morale problems, and some people to
lose faith in the system."
Since 9/11, the service has been bumped from agency to agency
within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The Inspector
General and the General Accountability Office have issued reports
critical of initial screening and training of new federal air
marshals, as well as of the DHS response to concerns of air marshals
themselves - about things such as how dress codes and other mandates
might interfere with their mission by exposing their identities. Low
morale remains a problem, some experts say.
DHS officials say that the problems have been resolved, that
training is excellent and ongoing, and that morale among marshals is
high. "We're constantly aware and vigilant about the job they do.
There are no morale problems at all, and the men and women are doing
an outstanding job seven days a week, 24 hours a day," says Dave
Adams, DHS spokesman for the FAMS. "Their response in this case was
But the shooting at Miami International Airport on an American
Airlines jetway - the first ever by a federal air marshal -
signifies that training must be improved, critics say, particularly
in light of two significant changes in the nation's skies. On Dec.
22, the Transportation Security Administration will allow passengers
toting certain sharp items, such as scissors and screwdrivers, to
board planes. …