What is a US Air Marshal?

The Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS), our nation’s civil aviation security program, celebrated 50 years of service in 2012. Under the guidance of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the FAMS is responsible for providing security to our nation’s U.S. commercial airline industry, protecting passengers and crewmembers from hostile acts including hijackings and other terrorist activities.

Sponsored Content

U.S. Air Marshals are armed federal law enforcement officers who are called upon to use their investigative techniques, their firearms proficiency, and their aircraft defense tactics to serve as a deterrent and a physical presence on U.S. civilian aircraft. These highly skilled and trained aviation security professionals are an important part of the nation’s homeland security initiative, and their work involves coordinating with a number of law enforcement agencies to accomplish their mission.

In addition to their posts aboard civilian aircraft, U.S. Air Marshals serve as assistant federal security directors for law enforcement at airports across the country, and they are also found in a number of staff positions within other federal organizations, such as the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces, and the National Targeting Center.

Who are U.S. Air Marshals?

A U.S. Air Marshal is a federal law enforcement officer who is responsible for protecting passengers and crewmembers from criminal and terrorist attacks onboard civil aircraft. Federal Air Marshals also perform investigative work and assignments with a number of investigative task forces and law enforcement agencies.

A Federal Air Marshal, in an entry-level position:

    • Is at least 21 years old, but no older than 36 years old at the time of appointment (maximum age may be waived for federal law enforcement officers); AND
    • Has at least three years of general experience, one year of which is equivalent to the F Band (GS-4 level), that displays an ability to:
      • Analyze problems and recognize solutions
      • Plan and organize work
      • Gather data
      • Communicate effectively, both in writing and orally; OR


  • Has, at a minimum, a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university; OR
  • Has a combination of education and experience

In addition to meeting the minimum requirements of a Federal Air Marshal, candidates must also be able to:

  • Obtain and maintain a top-secret security clearance
  • Engage in considerable physical exercise and exertion
  • Pass all medical and physical abilities assessments/examinations
  • Maintain firearms proficiency
  • Meet the requirements of the Lautenburg Amendment, which includes not having any misdemeanor domestic violence convictions
  • Complete a law enforcement training program
  • Travel constantly
  • Be available for permanent or long-term temporary assignments


The History of the Federal Air Marshals

The Air Marshals program began in 1961, when President John F. Kennedy signed an amendment to the Federal Aviation Act of 1958; an amendment that was designed to enhance penalties for anyone interfering with airline crewmembers and to introduce the use of armed guards on flights. Just a year later, in 1962, 18 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety inspectors became deputized to help enforce the Act and prevent terrorist hijackings.

The Federal Air Marshal program (originally called the Sky Marshall Program) continued throughout the 1970s, although another major change to the program took place following the hijacking of U.S. Flight TWA 847 in June 1985. This incident resulted in a two-week confrontation by Lebanese Shiite Moslems and the murder of American Robert Stethem.

President Ronald Regan, in response to the hijacking and the rise in Middle East terrorism, directed the Secretary of Transportation to expand the Federal Air Marshal program to international flights. The International Security and Development Cooperation Act of 1985 was established as a result.

The Federal Air Marshal program has since undergone a number of major changes to its organizational structure and operations, with the most significant changes taking place following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. At the time of the terrorist attacks, there were just 33 air marshals working in a full-time capacity.

The Bush Administration immediately began pushing for a rapid expansion of the air marshals program. And, within one month of the terrorist attacks, more than 600 air marshals were hired, trained, and activated. Thousands more were added to the program in the following months, making it the most significant endeavor ever undertaken by the Federal Air Marshal program.

By 2003, the Federal Air Marshal Service had a budget of nearly $1 billion and thousands of trained and active U.S. Air Marshals.

What is an Air Marshal: Job Duties of Federal Air Marshals

As federal law enforcement officers, U.S. Air Marshals are responsible for policing our nation’s transportation systems, which includes:

  • Protecting U.S. commercial aviation
  • Protecting U.S. commercial aviation interests in foreign countries
  • Making arrests
  • Participating in criminal investigations
  • Seeking and executing search and arrest warrants
  • Testifying in court proceedings
  • Conducting interviews and interrogations
  • Representing the U.S. government in foreign countries
  • Working with other U.S. and foreign law enforcement agencies

Back to Top