Like most travelers, I’ve never been able to figure out what exactly is going on with air marshals. Why so mysterious? Where are they? Who are they? Can they get rid of this stinky guy sitting to my right? But as with anything else, if you want to learn about a job—and ease the suspense—you have to go straight to the source. The problem: Anyone employed by the Federal Air Marshal Service, or FAMS, will decline your request as the information is “too sensitive.”
The solution: Former Navy SEAL Clay Biles served as an air marshal from 2008-2013. He’s written a book about his experiences, Unsecured Skies, and has another one in the works. He sat down with Paste Travel to help take the mystery out of being an air marshal for all of us civilians.
Paste Travel: Was does the job entail?
Clay Biles: The mission was to detect and defeat hostile acts on board commercial aircrafts, and in airports as well. It’s really pretty involved but it’s mostly learning detection techniques for airports and aircrafts that will help us spot behavioral patterns that are characteristic of terrorists, based on past incidents. Whether it’s a hijacker or bombing, terrorists have employed certain tactics over decades so we’re basically looking to spot those kinds of indicators. We’re not supposed to racially profile, but it happens.
PT: What’s the training like?
CB: First you go to the basic federal law enforcement academy so you learn sort of what a street cop in your local city would learn. When you get to phase two, you go to a Federal Aviation Administration property in New Jersey and you learn more of the aviation and aircraft specific type stuff. It’s like four months of training, not that long.
PT: Are there air marshals on every flight?
CB: No. They kind of use a threat matrix, which more or less bases it off how much fuel an aircraft has, whether or not it’s a transcontinental flight. It’s the 9/11 type of mentality. Where is the aircraft going? Is there something on that specific flight path that could be used to fly into? You’re looking at flight path, you’re looking at what it’s flying over—like a nuclear facility. It’s risk-based.
PT: What was your scariest encounter as an air marshal?
CB: Having another air marshal tell me that he wouldn’t react if an incident happened on board. The biggest incident I was a part of was with a drunken guy that got physical. But the scariest thing was having one of your partners on a flight saying, “I wouldn’t even do anything if something happened.” Just in casual conversation. The air marshal service has kind of become a pretty big bureaucratic machine. Unfortunately you get a lot of people like that. A lot of them say, “air marshals shouldn’t have guns,” that we should just have Tasers. There are just a lot of different personalities in the air marshal service, even though there may only be a few thousand air marshals—three or four thousand.
PT: And the most dangerous encounter was with a drunken guy?
CB: Yeah, this guy kept going to the back, serving himself drinks when the flight attendants weren’t there … jumped on a passenger, and this lady’s screaming, so we had to do something. They cuffed the guy, he eventually started screaming, trying to work his way out of cuffs, so they cuffed him tighter. He and his partner had been drinking and taking Ambien. Then the second guy goes in the back and starts waking people up saying, “My buddy needs an attorney, these feds have him.” Then he got into a squabble with another flight attendant, so the attendant says, “this guy’s interfering with my duties,” so we’re like, that’s a felony.
PT: How many marshals are on a flight?
CB: For international, four. Those are big aircrafts, so you want two people covering the cabin and two people covering the flight deck. Others have sometimes just two.
PT: Would you always get involved with drunken passengers?
CB: Usually you wouldn’t want to. That’s when things can go wrong because that can be a ruse, like, I’m gonna act like a drunk guy so I can see where the security people are, what their reaction is, draw people away from a certain area so I can hijack the aircraft or setup a bomb. So you don’t want to get involved. The majority of guys will probably get involved, though, it’s a boring job. You kind of want to get involved.
PT: How do you remain undercover?
CB: We have a cover story. I said I was a medical researcher. I flew with this one woman twice, and my whole story held up. I said my wife works at an embassy, that kind of thing.
PT: Why so much mystery?
CB: You never really can be sure who you’re talking to or who’s overhearing your conversation. You don’t want anyone knowing you have a gun on an aircraft. If somebody gets ahold of a gun on an aircraft, and they know what to do with it, they can control the aircraft pretty easily. That’s the main reason. The flight crew knows we’re on board. But we act more or less like any other passenger. You don’t want to draw attention to yourself, you just want to look like a regular passenger. What we look for and what terrorists look for on an aircraft is contrast. So you don’t want to set yourself apart from other people on the aircraft.
PT: Do you get to see the places you travel to?
CB: Yeah, it depends. If you go from San Francisco to NY, you’ll get an overnight and come back sometime in the morning. And then international, you might get a day or day and a half. If it’s somewhere like Australia, you’ll get longer.
PT: What’s your response to the claims that the FAMS is a “flying fraternity” with lots of partying and sex?
CB: Sure. Yeah, it’s a big party [laughs]. I think it has a lot to do with the culture in the air marshals … people think air marshals are kind of like lightweights. They see you as amateurs. If you see a suspicious act and report it, I’ve seen this happen before, they might say, “you’re a fucking amateur. What are you talking about? Go back and sit in the seat.” They’re sending men and women to fly all over the world, and they’re gonna tell them, “you’re an amateur.” So, yeah people go get drunk and party.
PT: If they’re constantly being dismissed, how do they get their job done?
CB: It makes things difficult. The system is kind of a joke because air marshals know most supervisors don’t take into account what they’re saying. Passengers or unarmed law enforcement officials have actually stopped the majority of bombing and hijacking attempts over history. There are air marshals on maybe a few hundred flights a day.
PT: What are some of the behaviors you look for?
CB: Mostly it’s just stress type stuff. People start getting nervous twitches or habits, putting hands in and out of pockets, looking all around, and not wanting to get close to a law enforcement officer. Flustered activity. If someone’s wearing a big thick coat and it’s hot on the plane and he’s sweating; or if someone starts chanting Allahu Akbar, and he’s super clean-shaven and he’s got cologne on, these are things that terrorists have been known to do.
PT: If you could change one thing about the FAMS what would it be any why?
CB: Tougher standards that apply to everybody with that title. I want a confident team on board who really knows what they’re doing. I think that really comes out of training and standards. If I only have to meet this easy standard every quarter, that’s all I have to train for. I’m just gonna do minimal training to meet the standard and keep my job. If it’s a really tough standard, I’m gonna have to train to that level and be better.
PT: Could you spot an air marshal?
CB: Oh yeah, if I was on a U.S. aircraft. Easily. Air marshals basically operate like terrorists do; the easiest way to spot deceptive behavior is to be a deceptive person. But I know where they sit, I know their behavioral patterns, I know what they wear. A lot of them look the same, there isn’t a lot of diversity. It would be better if there was more diversity.
PT: What’s the second book you’re working on?
CB: Undercover Passenger. It’s basically an inflight guide to stopping a hijacking or bombing, and how to survive one. I want people to be informed, I might as well give them that knowledge.
PT: Did you enjoy being an air marshal?
CB: Yeah I had a great time. It’s a really good job, it pays really well, there are some good people. And the culture … go fly all over the world and booze it up … it’s not bad.
Maggie Parker is Paste Magazine’s assistant travel editor.