The Case for Air Marshals

Airplane seats

Oh boy. Last week, a London-bound US Airways flight flipped a U-turn an hour into the flight, returning to Philadelphia after some creep grouped three women and had to be restrained by an air marshal, according to an FBI affidavit.

It began when vodka-drinking Californian John Coppack, 40 (the age of longing), used his middle seat as a staging ground to grope the two women next to him. (He may be the only person who requests a middle seat.) The women complained. A flight attendant told him to stop.

That’s when things heated up. “He became aggressive and used vulgar language to her and the passengers around him,” an FBI affidavit says, according to Philly.com.

The crew sent him to the rear of the plane. On the perp walk he groped a third woman.

Then a federal air marshal swung into action. Coppack cussed at the agent and threatened him. He was handcuffed and restrained until the Airbus A330 returned to Philadelphia. Coppack was charged with “intimidating a flight crew and interfering with their work.” (What we touch touches us.)

The flight took off for London again, arriving at Heathrow four hours late.

The air marshal interests me. I’d forgotten about them over the years since September 11, 2001, when they were in the news.

CNN recently reported “the Department of Homeland Security has pared the number of Federal Air Marshals during the past three years.”

The number of active marshals, and the number eliminated, is secret. Back in 2001, there were about 40 marshals working on flights.

Then the DHS took over the air marshal program and increased the number of agents. Two years ago, the agency “negotiated pay disputes with some 3,500 air marshals – believed to represent the bulk of the workforce.”

Last week, Air Marshal Director Robert Bray told CNN “the agency’s budget has been cut from $966 million to $805 million in the past three years.” They plan to close six of their 26 field offices.

No worries says director Bray, the closures “will not adversely impact our ability to maintain coverage onboard flights at the corresponding airports.”

How can that be?

Enter retired U.S. Air Marshal Allen Robinson, a one-time marine who spent 10 years as an air marshal and recently bad-mouthed the agency in The New York Post, citing “chronic security lapses, poor training and declining standards at the Federal Air Marshal Service.”

Robinson even claims the agency “makes our skies less friendly, even dangerous.”

“You’ve got jet lag all of the time,” he told the Post. “You can’t stay awake. Most of the time the passengers would probably be safer if we weren’t on the plane.”

According to Robinson, air marshals fly more than airline crews. “A normal week in the air for me was between 50 and 60 hours,” he said.

He also said he flew with guys that were “eat-McDonald’s-every-day 300 pounds.” Guys that needed seatbelt extensions. “Butterballs” who couldn’t jump out of their seat in an emergency and had limited pistol training.

How can that be?

The Tarmac’s View: I ask you, do we need air marshals? I think so. I’m not going to judge the agency on one disgruntled employee, that’s the work of tabloids like The New York Post.

But at the risk of disclosing state secrets, I can tell you San Diego and Tampa are closing their field offices by the end of this year. Pittsburgh and Phoenix will close next year, and Cleveland and Cincinnati in 2016. The agency has frozen hiring at Las Vegas, Seattle, and Denver.

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