Are air marshals on every flight?
These guys say (in the discussion) that they were the only three passengers on board.
Does that mean that there was no Air Marshal on board (or one of them was?).
Aren't air marshals present on every flight?
This sounds like the setup to the poker adage "Look around the table, if you can't identify the sucker, *you* are the sucker". It looks like the photo shows the 3 men in Economy class, since they flight attendants didn't let them go up to First Class for free, it's likely that there were already passengers in first class, perhaps the air marshalls were among them.
The exact number of air marshals is not public information, and they certainly don't disclose what flights they fly on or other operational details. However, the number has been reported to be on the order of ~3,000-4,000 and reports indicate the number has decreased somewhat since then. All of them are, of course, not on duty 24/7/365. There are around 87,000 flights a day in the US alone, but only around 28,000 are commercial passenger flights, where air marshals are presumably most likely (hopefully there's not a need for air marshals on military flights, for instance).
So for some back of the envelope math, let's conservatively say there are 3,500 air marshals who all work five days a week, they all work alone (in reality, they appear to work at least in pairs), and they somehow manage to average protecting four flights a day. Even with these conservative assumptions, that would only be 5000 flights/day covered by air marshals. From this, it should be clear that there cannot possibly be an air marshal on every commercial flight in the US.
The President of the Air Marshal Association/CWA (their union), not entirely a disinterested party, agrees:
"There are around 30,000 commercial flights per day over the U.S.," says Casaretti. "If you were to attempt to place a team of just two FAMs on each flight, it would require an agency of over 75,000 FAMs (accounting for training and days off). FAMs cover a very small percentage of commercial flights."
Which flight air marshals get on is determined by a computer program that assesses the probability of threat based on the aircraft, departure and destination cities, as well as the amount of fuel on board. This is the threat matrix that comes out of the missions operation center.
The TSA will not release statistics on the number of air marshals. TSA's Pascarella acknowledges only "many thousands." But Biles estimates that there are approximately 3,300 FAMs and of those, 34% are filling ground assignments in training, operations and management.
"We call them 'chair marshals,' riding out their career in management," says Biles. That leaves 66% of the workforce to perform in-flight security duties.
"If one accounts for vacations, sick leave, medical leave and days off, some air marshals working in operations have told me that this accounts for less than one half percent of all U.S.-flagged aircraft being covered by federal air marshals," he says.
"less than one half percent of all U.S.-flagged aircraft" This is, of course, a meaningless statistic, since many US-flagged aircraft aren't on commercial flights.
David, how is that meaningless? You seem to know exactly what that statistic meant... Enough to complain about it.
@ermershel It's meaningless because air marshals _aren't supposed to be covering_ non-commercial flights. It's a true statistic, but one that is ultimately irrelevant (though it's designed to sound relevant in order to exaggerate the actual situation.) This would be like saying TSA only scans passengers at 10% of U.S. airports while failing to mention that that 10% happens to be all of the airports with scheduled passenger service (I just made that number up for example... I'm not sure what the actual percentage is.)
Also, how do you know what the statistic is *designed* to sound like. It didn't fool any of us into thinking it was relevant.
That's why I said the head of the Air Marshal Association/CWA is not exactly a disinterested party here. The statistic implies that air marshals cover a dangerously low number of flights, but the universe of flights being considered includes everything from passenger jets a few miles from the White House into DCA to a crop duster in an Iowa field. Of course, there's also the random deterrence theory. You don't know whether an air marshal is on board a given flight, so, as the theory goes, it's not worth risking that one is present. The same applies to transit fare inspections, for instance.
@ermershel irrelevant means that it adds no meaning to the current context, and thus is meaningless *to the discussion*. There's a difference between general nonsense and something that adds no useful information. In this context, irrelevant and meaningless are synonyms. Likewise, we know what the statistic is *designed* to sound like because of context - a union boss speaking publicly *only* makes statements designed to forward the goal of growing their union. We have enough history on that one. It's a very short jump to understand what's being said here and why.