Armed and Anonymous

On your next flight, the passenger in the seat beside you could be a federal air marshal.

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“We actually had a class to help us develop our little b.s. stories to tell people,” remembers Ruzzamenti. “Guys would come up with ones that they were junior executive with so and so.” Air marshals stationed near the cockpit found themselves sitting in first class and adjusted their cover stories accordingly. “Some of the old ex-military guys came up with these off-the-wall stories,” remembers Ruzzamenti. “They had inherited all these weird fortunes or they were relatives of J. Paul Getty and on and on. You can imagine them explaining this to someone in first class while wearing a polyester suit! It was pretty funny.”

Ruzzamenti’s story was that he was traveling first class because his father was an airline pilot and they were meeting up to do some sightseeing. Mooney came up with one that was easy to believe but not likely to lead to further conversation. “I was a school administrator attending a conference,” says Mooney. “It seemed to work real well. Not too many people were really that interested in my job.”

Mooney and Ruzzamenti remain as secretive about the air marshal methodology of the 1970s as the current federal air marshals are of the techniques used today. “I imagine not a hell of a lot has changed in the last thirty years,” says Mooney. “You are still dealing with a steel tube 30,000 feet in the air.” He will say he found a need to keep well hydrated. He ate very little and tried not to get too comfortable lest he doze off—a definite no-no in the air marshal world but hard to avoid when you are flying through multiple time zones on 10-hour international flights. “I drank a lot of coffee,” says Mooney. “It was tough. You have to be alert and ready to go for the entire 10 hours.”

Something else Mooney will allude to with a subtle, somewhat crooked smile: the layovers on those international flights. “I was a single guy,” he says. “The 747 was staffed by 16 stewardesses. And the stewardesses at that time on overseas flights tended to be the younger, more beautiful ones. And they knew who we were. And when we would get to Paris, we would find our own way to our hotel, but we’d stay at the same hotel as the flight crew. You can imagine being in a foreign country. You don’t know Paris. And stewardesses like to show you all around town.”

Three years later, with the number of hijackings in decline, Nixon’s sky marshal program was scrapped and replaced by a smaller number of marshals overseen by the FAA. Seeing the writing on the cabin wall, Mooney left the program and went to work as an Atlantic City fireman. He could only look on when in 1985 two Lebanese Shiite Muslims, hoping to negotiate the release of Shiite prisoners in Israel, hijacked TWA Flight 847.

That flight had departed Athens when it was hijacked and diverted to Beirut, where additional hijackers climbed aboard. A two-week ordeal ended in the death of one passenger, U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem. As a result, President Reagan ordered the expansion of the ranks of armed sky marshals, who were renamed “federal air marshals.” Again the program grew in size and scope, but only a few years later it shrank again as the hijacking threat diminished.

While the federal air marshal program continued to soldier on, it was revealed by U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta at a security conference last October that only 32 active-duty air marshals were working prior to September 11, 2001. Now, of course, the ranks are growing again.

Those who survive the three-and-a-half months of intensive instruction must be able to travel regularly for several weeks at a time, work irregular hours, and be on call 24 hours a day. While deployed, they have limited contact with family and limited time off. Also, according to the FAA’s air marshal job announcement, FAMs are expected to spend some of their non-flying hours in “foreign countries that are sometimes politically or economically unstable and may pose a high probability of terrorist or criminal activity against the U.S. Government. In addition, some locations may present health hazards such as poor sanitation and unsafe water.”

Another sacrifice the new batch of marshals may endure is career insecurity. Aviation security expert Charles Slepian sees parallels between the present situation and that of the mid-1970s and late ’80s, when the threat of hijackings had receded and many of the government’s highly trained sky and air marshals were looking for work. Says Slepian: “I have a son-in-law who is a federal agent in Florida. He was being heavily solicited to transfer to the air marshal program. I said if he did, he would be unemployed within a year. I think technologically we’re going to make it impossible to get into the cockpit and take over the aircraft. So we’re not going to have the same situation as we did on September 11. Which raises the question what the air marshals’ function is going to be.”

In the meantime, it is wise to heed the admonitions of flight attendants and carefully follow the new security procedures of air travel. On November 12, 2001, a US Airways passenger did not follow the new federal rule stating that in the last half-hour of an approach into Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C, all passengers must remain seated. About 15 minutes before the Airbus A319 was to land, Raho Ortiz, without a word to anybody, got out of his seat and walked briskly toward the front of the aircraft. As Ortiz neared the cockpit, a federal air marshal seated near the front of the airplane made himself evident and yelled “Stop!” Another air marshal appeared from the back of the airplane with gun drawn. After Ortiz was handcuffed, the marshals ordered the other 106 passengers to put their hands behind their heads and later rest them on the seat backs in front of them. The airliner, per new FAA procedures regarding such incidents, was diverted to Dulles airport in northern Virginia (directing it away from potential targets such as the U.S. Capitol and the White House). As he lay face down on the floor, Ortiz, a lawyer for the Environmental Protection Agency, could be heard saying “I’m sorry. I just wanted to go to the bathroom.”

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