Air marshals have won the right to be left alone. On planes. Although it sounds improbable in a post-9/11 era, air marshals hadn't been allowed to board airplanes or be alone on board an aircraft without airline personnel also present. But that all changed, MSNBC.com has learned, with new boarding procedures issued by the Federal Aviation Administration that went into effect Wednesday.
Before Wednesday, Federal Aviation Administration rules stated that a minimum number of flight attendants had to be present before allowing any passengers to board. In addition, non-airline personnel were not allowed to be left alone on planes without flight attendants present.
The new guidelines order the airlines to consider air marshals "trusted agents necessary for the safety/security of the flight" and to be accorded the right and privilege to board or be left alone on an aircraft without escort.
"The air marshal service is cooperating with all different departments within the U.S. government to strengthen aviation security," said Dave Adams, spokesman for the Air Marshal Service. "Any department that helps us in our endeavor is greatly appreciated."
However, that rather pedestrian comment belies the sometimes contentious negotiations among the airlines, the Air Marshal Service and the FAA over the boarding procedure issue, according to sources familiar with those nearly two-year discussions.
The problem was rooted in tradition and exacerbated by economic turmoil in the airline industry after 9/11.
Before 9/11, there were only 33 air marshals and "air carriers easily facilitated the Federal Air Marshal Service's missions by escorting them to the aircraft prior to general boarding beyond the view of waiting passengers," says the official FAA notice outlining the new procedures that was obtained by MSNBC.com.
Requests for this covert boarding status was "seldom refused," the FAA notes. However, as the Air Marshal Service ramped up from 33 to thousands -- the official number is classified -- the airlines found that escorting air marshals aboard in the covert manner they desired wasn't possible, largely due to their own personnel cutbacks, the FAA notice says.
Spot the FAM
The issue of how and when the airlines allowed air marshals to board has been an area of contention between the airline industry and the Air Marshal Service almost since the service was greatly expanded in the post-9/11 era.
A recent General Accounting Office report looking into the overall efficiency of Air Marshal Service noted that confrontations between air marshals and airline personnel ranked third in an official listing of "mission-related incident" reports filed by air marshals.
Some of those incidents resulted in official charges of "misconduct" being leveled against individual air marshals.
"[A]n analysis of the misconduct data indicated that a number of air marshals were accused of being abusive to airline personnel during the boarding process," the GAO report says. "A detailed review of the data pointed to differences in the service's and the airlines' procedures for boarding aircraft."
In dozens of interviews with MSNBC.com, air marshals have complained that boarding procedures have blown their undercover status. Such procedures include boarding the aircraft along with regular passengers, being made to identify themselves in front of passengers and having to show their government IDs, all in full view of passengers.
"Often, FAMs [federal air marshals] are boarded only minutes before or during the general boarding procedures, greatly hampering their inconspicuous movement," the FAA notice says.
Such rushed procedures didn't allow the air marshals to properly brief the air crews or flight attendants, "resulting in the cabin crew's inability to recognize or authenticate the FAM team should the need arise," the FAA notice says.
"I'd call this a win-win situation," an air marshal that's been particularly critical of the service told MSNBC.com. "Now let's just hope the word gets out quickly" to airport security directors "and that we don't waste time having to explain the new procedures."
Another air marshal told MSNBC.com the change "is a very positive step forward. But there still needs to be more procedures enacted so that air marshals have total access at all U.S. airports." Air marshals aren't given free reign in airports outside the jurisdiction of their "home" airport.
How this comes into play: "If we are boarding a plane at an airport that we don't have access badges for, we still rely on airline employees to grant us access," the air marshal said.