The Life of an Air Marshal

Federal air marshals look like any other passenger on the plane.
i David De Lossy/Photodisc/Getty Images

Air marshals are the plain-clothes police officers of America's skies, responsible for the airborne safety of all aboard. Women have a special advantage as air marshals. Many people assume air marshals are men, making it easier for female marshals to blend in with the crowd, which is vital to the job.

Primary Responsibilities

    Federal air marshals pose as passengers on commercial flights on U.S.-based airlines. Their job is to blend in as much as possible, but while on the job air marshals constantly watch for suspicious or potentially dangerous activity. Though their primary role is to thwart terrorists, air marshals can arrest anyone breaking the law aboard a plane. This could include a passenger trying to damage a seat or someone disturbing passengers or crew members.

Before the Flight

    An air marshal typically introduces herself to the flight crew to reassure them that she is on the job for general security reasons. She then will search the cabin, overhead bins, lavatories and seats. She watches passengers board and keeps an eye open for weapons or bombs. She must watch for anything out of character on the flight, such as a passenger wearing excessively baggy clothing or a passenger who has no luggage on a long flight.


    Part of blending into the crowd means eating when other passengers eat and sticking to cover stories -- "I'm visiting my family" -- if anyone wants to talk to an air marshal. The hours can be long and time in the air can take a marshal far from her actual friends and family. Success is often measured in the lack of incidents that occur during a flight.


    Air marshals are among the sharpest handgun shooters in the country for a simple reason -- they cannot miss if they are forced to fire. A stray bullet could badly damage a plane in flight or seriously injure a passenger or flight crew member. Or an errant shot could give a terrorist enough extra time to commit a crime. Continual firearms and hand-to-hand combat training in real and simulated planes is a major part of the job.

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