What's worse than sitting in a cramped airline seat for a six-hour flight across the country? Having to stay awake and alert the whole time. That's the job of the nation's several thousand federal air marshals (FAMs), a force of highly trained security officers who travel incognito on selected flights to look out for possible trouble. Though the number of FAMs has increased dramatically since Sept. 11, 2001, the exhausting and often boring job is causing morale problems. In response, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is about to take some agents off airplanes and reassign them to surveillance duty in airport terminals. The land-based FAMs will watch out for suspicious behavior and enter their observations into a specially configured Palm Pilot linked to a TSA database. The FAMs will be authorized to detain or arrest suspects. The TSA will not disclose which airports will be watched, but sources say Chicago's O'Hare will be one of the first.
Critics of the plan, including some airport directors and aviation-security experts, say it takes the undercover FAMs off planes, where they are most needed, and puts them in terminals already patrolled by local cops (both uniformed and undercover) and often by customs officers and Immigration and Naturalization agents. In addition, the FBI for years has had agents dedicated to airports, conducting surveillance. "I'm afraid they will all end up tripping over each other," says David Plavin, the U.S. director of Airports Council International. --By Sally B. Donnelly