U.S. Federal Air Marshals Part I : History 101

The U.S. Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) has been in the news more often than they would like recently … and as I have been researching aspects of the Federal Air Marshals recently on an unrelated topic … this is probably an ideal time to write a multi-part series on these Federal Agents in the skies.

With this, the first part in the series on the Federal Air Marshal Service, we’ll go back to where today’s current Federal Air Marshals began and their history.

The Federal Air Marshals can trace their roots back to 1961 when President John F. Kennedy determined that armed Federal Agents needed to provide in-flight security on high-risk flights. The airlines could request these agents or they could be placed on flights at the determination of the U.S. Government. Kennedy’s concept of Federal Agents on flights became a reality with the creation of the ‘original’ Sky Marshal program.

Incidentally, the creation of Kennedy’s Sky Marshal Program also ‘insisted’ that every airliner lock the flight deck door and that the doors to the flight deck be strong enough to prevent a forcible entry, with the only key to the cockpit being in the possession of those on the flight deck so that those outside could not be forced to open the cockpit door, however these safety requirements were truly not put into place until late 2001.

The formation of the ‘modern’ Federal Air Marshal Service tends to trace its roots back to the little known Federal Aviation Sky Marshals, which was formed in 1968.  The initial force of six Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Sky Marshals were from within the FAA’s Flight Standards Division and later part of the FAA’s Civil Aviation Security Division.

The FAA’s Sky Marshal program underwent a dramatic change just a year after its formation with the creation of the U.S. Customs Division of Air Security.  The force of just six FAA Sky Marshals rapidly grew to include a force of 1,784 Customs Security Officers.  Customers Security Officers general travelled in teams of two or three agents, predominantly on U.S. domestic flights, with some international travel and these agents also conducted ground security screening of passengers on limited flights at their discretion.

With the FAA enacting mandatory security screening of passengers in 1973, the Customs Security Officer foci was disbanded and largely a rarity on aircraft until the. U.S. Congress enacted the International Security and Development Cooperation Act, Public Law 99-83, at the request of President Ronald Reagan in 1985. The International Security and Development Cooperation Act was created in reaction to the June 14 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847 in Athens by Hezbollah.

Under the International Security and Development Cooperation Act the FAA’s Federal Air Marshal program expanded once again, with nearly 40 FAA Federal Air Marshal’s focusing on both domestic and international flights.   The initial expansion of Federal Air Marshals and their role on international flights was problematic, with certain nations, including West Germany (now just Germany) and the United Kingdom, protesting the presence of armed U.S. Federal Agents on flights in their airspace and in their airports. These initial international law issues faced by Federal Air Marshals were largely reduced by the introduction of bilateral agreements between nations regarding the enforcement of laws, use of deadly force and handling of weapons in the foreign nations.  These agreements also allowed for foreign nations to post air marshals on flights as well into the United States.

As the threat of airliner hijackings reduced the ranks of the Federal Air Marshals were reduced to only 33 on September 11 2001.

The current Federal Air Marshal Service in place today, which has ballooned from 33 agents on September 11 2001, to an agency with an estimated 6,000 agents, based at 21 field offices, was as a direct result of the creation of the Aviation and Security Act, Public Law 107-71, on the 19th of November 2001, under Section 105, with § 44917 addressing the Deployment of Federal Air Marshals.

On the 16th of October 2005 the Federal Air Marshal Service was transferred to the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

Over the next few days I’ll be addressing issues related to the current and future state of the Federal Air Marshals … stay tuned.

Happy Flying!


  1. I must admit looks like a great job and lets hope they are not needed again. But I guess there will always be nuts around and people who drink far too much on airliners.

  2. Thank you to all of the Federal Air Marshals that protect us behind the scenes on flights.

  3. I’m sure you are working on the next part to your Air Marshals series, but I was wondering what your thoughts are on the future of the Air Marshals. I am in the hiring process with them and have a decent job now. I want to know if the Air Marshals will play a more investigsted roll in counter terrorism. I’m very interested in working the various task forces within the Air Marshals but am afraid of leaving my current job only to be “locked on a plane”. Any insight would be great. Also, if you can refer me to someone or other valuable information, I would greatly appreciate it.

    Thanks, Steve

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  5. Your article is not well researched. The FAA program was never called “Sky Marshals” The FAA program was always known as “Air Marshal”. The only agency where the term sky marshal was applied was with US Customs. And, by the way, US Immigrations (Border Patrol) was the first agency to deploy armed agents on US carriers. Now, there was a time in history when both the FAA Air Marshal Program and the US Customs Sky Marshal program ran simultaneously.
    But, they were always distinct programs. Lastly, in federal organizational naming conventions, an organization called a “service” is its own agency and reports to a department. The Federal Air Marshals are not their own agency (FAMs are part of the agency known as TSA, which reports to DHS), thus they aren’t officially a service (after all, one agency does not report to another agency). The term “service” was a sleight of hand move woven into the nomenclature and folklore post 9/11 when the TSA FAM program was taken over by secret service retirees. Their egos drove the tacked-on “service” to the program’s title and they have been pushing the idea that they are a Federal Law Enforcement Agency. Although they have law enforcement authority, they are not a law enforcement agency per se. I challenge anyone to find in law where a Federal Air Marshal Service was created. As with security screeners, security inspectors, Federal Flight Deck Officers, it is a program line under its parent agency, TSA. Maybe we should add the term service to the screeners (officers) and call them the Federal Security Screening Service

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