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What Does a Federal Air Marshal Do?

March 13, 2023

Though no terrorists have managed to carry out successful attacks on airplanes in the United States since 9/11, serious threats still hover over U.S. civil aviation. Every day, approximately 2.9 million travelers fly in and out of U.S. airports, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Federal air marshals serve as the last line of defense for these travelers, boarding planes undercover and ready to foil terrorist plots and criminal acts.

Those inspired to safeguard the nation’s civil aviation system may want to explore how to become an air marshal and consider how an advanced degree can help them pursue this career path.

The Importance of Federal Air Marshals

In response to a number of brazen and deadly airplane hijackings in the early 1960s, the U.S. government formed the Federal Air Marshal Service in 1961. The program deployed a small number of law enforcement officers to protect flights deemed to be at high risk of hijacking. 

After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, President George W. Bush ordered a dramatic expansion of the Federal Air Marshal Service as part of the government’s counterterrorism efforts. While only 33 air marshals worked on U.S. flights at the time of the attacks, today the Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employs thousands of air marshals charged with keeping flight crews and passengers safe while aboard civil aircraft.

These highly trained law enforcement officers play a vital role in the TSA’s comprehensive approach to addressing evolving threats in civil aviation. These threats can include terrorist activities carried out by lone wolves and nonstate actors, human trafficking and narcotics smuggling, among others.     

Air Marshal Responsibilities

A unique entity within the world of law enforcement, the Federal Air Marshal Service trains its members to work undercover, blending in with passengers aboard commercial aircraft. Air marshals scan for potential threats using investigative techniques and their knowledge of criminal and terrorist behavior. 

To avoid tipping off terrorists and other bad actors, air marshals maintain anonymity and use cover stories while traveling back and forth between international and U.S. cities and ports. Air marshals may also conduct investigative work on the ground to prevent terrorism. This often involves working alongside FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces and other law enforcement agencies. 

Common federal air marshal duties include:

  • Executing arrest warrants
  • Assessing flight environments and passenger behavior
  • Responding to emergencies and criminal activities occurring during flights
  • Serving as witnesses in court
  • Using close-quarters self-defense techniques and firearms to protect themselves and other passengers
  • Investigating suspicious activities related to aviation
  • Arresting passengers who commit crimes aboard flights

How to Become an Air Marshal

Aspiring air marshals can begin by educating themselves about the role. Researching the TSA and reading reviews by current and former air marshals can offer valuable insights into the challenges and benefits of the position.    

Air marshals undergo months of intensive training designed to prepare them for active duty. The training program covers:

  • Firearms use
  • Martial arts
  • Aviation jurisdiction
  • International aviation agreements and treaties
  • Aircraft safety
  • Strategies for recognizing criminal and terroristic behaviors
  • Providing medical assistance and first aid aboard aircraft
  • Rules for making swift and lawful arrests
  • Surveillance 

Air marshals in training also adhere to rigorous daily physical regimens to build up cardiovascular fitness, strength, flexibility and defensive tactics. 

Those prepared for such commitments can take the following steps to become an air marshal. 

Gain the Right Education

The TSA has several eligibility requirements for air marshals, ranging from citizenship to education prerequisites. 

First, air marshals must be U.S. citizens between 21 and 36 years old. They must also hold a valid driver’s license. Additionally, to qualify for any air marshal position, applicants need at least three years of relevant work experience. Without this experience, the TSA requires applicants to possess a bachelor’s degree or an advanced degree. 

A graduate degree can help aspiring air marshals stand out during the hiring process, and may also help them command higher salaries. 

Complete the Application Process

Federal air marshal candidates go through a comprehensive application process. To begin, applicants submit an online application through the official government job website USAJOBS or TSA’s career page. 

Undergo Testing

Qualified applicants receive invitations to take the Federal Air Marshal Assessment Battery. This computer-based test assesses writing skills, logical reasoning and the ability to make appropriate decisions in various situations. After passing the exam, applicants participate in a panel interview. During these interviews, hiring managers evaluate a candidate’s composure as well as their answers to questions to determine whether the applicant is a good fit for air marshal work.   

A Physical Training Assessment (PTA) comes next. Candidates need to demonstrate their ability to engage in strenuous physical exercise without becoming injured. PTA administrators ask applicants to perform several activities including a mile-and-a-half run, pull-ups, push-ups and sit-ups. 

Pass Relevant Screenings

Once applicants demonstrate they possess a sufficient level of fitness to become an air marshal, they attend a second interview. This interview verifies the personal and professional backgrounds of candidates and may include polygraph testing and fingerprinting. 

Following this background check, the medical team of the Federal Air Marshal Service conducts a medical exam. The exam tests vital signs and may include a drug test. 

Air Marshal Salary

As of July 2023, air marshals will earn estimated annual compensation (before incentives and awards) of around $91,500 in their first year of service, according to the Department of Homeland Security. They can then earn annual promotions and salary increases in their second and third years, first to an estimated $110,000, then to an estimated $130,000. Many federal air marshals also qualify for law enforcement availability pay (LEAP), an additional 25% of their adjusted salary. 

Keep Our Civil Aviation System Safe

Protecting U.S. civil aviation requires bravery and skill. Federal air marshals are a vital arm of the nation’s homeland security apparatus, ready to thwart terrorism and crime in the skies. 

Explore how the Virginia Commonwealth University Master of Arts in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness online program can prepare graduates to serve as air marshals who keep U.S. civil aviation safe.