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FAA secretive about air marshal program

From Kitty Pilgrim
CNN Financial News

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Federal air marshals try to blend into the airport crowd, sit with other passengers, and be ready to spring into action if there's an attack aboard a plane.

But beyond that, we don't know much about them or how they prepare. Secrecy, the FAA says, is an important part of the program.

The Federal Aviation Administration has received 100,000 applications for its air marshal program since the September 11 attacks, and the training process has intensified in recent weeks.

While the FAA doesn't talk about training techniques, criteria for hiring or even how many federal air marshals it will put on flights, it does say that basic law enforcement skills are helpful, because the primary part of this job is shooting a hijacker, without injuring passengers.

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According to the FAA, air marshals have the highest fire-range qualifications in the federal government.

"Shooting on board an airplane requires different, what are called, rules of engagement close-quarter battle. And that's something that you don't wake up and learn in just two or three days," counterterrorism expert Larry Johnson said.

The FAA won't even talk about what kind of budget it has for the program. It's clear that federal marshals will not be able to be on every flight, because tens of thousands of planes fly every day. But the mere possibility a marshal would be on a flight, they hope, is a deterrent to a hijacker, and a comfort to passengers.

"When people know that possibly -- maybe not on every flight -- but possibly there's an air marshal on that flight, they feel a lot more comfortable," said Beau Dietl of Beau Dietl and Associates, which provides security services.

There is still some debate whether marshals alone can do the job, and many advocate arming pilots and putting them through similar training.

"The federal air marshal program certainly is an effective program," said Billie Vincent, former director of aviation security with the FAA. "It's a professional group. And it would be -- it will be effective only if we arm the pilots and make them pilot-air marshals as well."

The FAA says it has stepped up these training programs all over the country, saying many people are willing and able to do these jobs. But the flying public, won't be able to thank them in person.


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