Federal Air Marshal Career Profile

Salary, Education Requirements and Work Environment of Federal Air Marshals

Commercial jet flying over clouds
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According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there are close to 7,000 airplanes in the skies over the United States at any given moment. Those flights are ferrying more than 500,000 passengers around the U.S. That's a weighty responsibility for the "quiet professionals" of the Federal Air Marshals service. 

With more than a half million people flying at any one moment, the importance of keeping those passengers safe cannot be overstated. And after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the threat of hijackers and the damage they can inflict cannot be ignored. That's why Federal Air Marshals work undercover to help keep our skies safe, and why you may want to consider a career as an Air Marshal.

Brief History of the Federal Air Marshals Program

Over the course of 3 months in 1961, three airplane hijacking took place—the first of their kind in the United States. The hijackings prompted President John F. Kennedy to call for armed officers to sit on flights in an effort to prevent or deter future hijackings, and thus what is now known as the Federal Air Marshals program was created.

The original Sky Marshals consisted of 18 agents from the U.S. Border Patrol. The agents were available to sit on certain flights identified as at risk by FBI agents or at the request of the airlines. Over the next decade, the sky marshals expanded to more than 1,700 agents. Shortly after, with the introduction of x-ray screening in airports, the ranks of the sky marshals were significantly reduced.

After the attacks of 9/11, the number of Air Marshals swelled rapidly, and at one time more than 4,000 Air Marshals sat on both foreign and domestic flights. Currently, the number of Air Marshals is confidential, but rest assured they're up there, ready to take action at a moment's notice to prevent disaster.

Job Functions and Work Environment of Air Marshals

The Transportation Security Agency—the current home of the Air Marshals service—states the primary function of Federal Air Marshals is to protect passengers and crew of commercial flights from the threat of terrorist attacks. The possibility of their presence alone can serve to deter potential terrorists.

Air marshals perform the majority of their work undercover. In fact, the chances are good that if you have been on a flight in recent years, there may have been an Air Marshal on board that you never knew about.

Known as the "quiet professionals," Air Marshals serve as covert armed law enforcers, sitting aboard random flights to monitor passengers for potential threats and take enforcement action when necessary. If you don't notice them, don't worry. That just means everything is going as it should.

Air Marshals are often expected to work long hours and may be subject to call out with only an hour's notice. An important component of the Department of Homeland Security, Air Marshals work together with other local and federal law enforcement agencies to maximize security, and they even assist in the security of other transportation methods, such as passenger trains and other mass transit systems during times of heightened security.

Federal Air Marshals conduct investigations and intelligence gathering and participate in multi-agency law enforcement and security task forces. They serve as Assistant Federal Security Directors for Law Enforcement at airports and participate in several multi-agency counterterrorism organizations.

Air marshals must be ready to fly at a moment’s notice, and they must be prepared to spend extended periods of time away from home—and in the air. They must also be prepared to be assigned to a variety of locations across the United States and even around the world.

Requirements for Becoming a Federal Air Marshal

It takes effort and dedication to become a Federal Air Marshal, and the service hires only the most qualified individuals for the job. To land a career as an Air Marshal, you must be between the ages of 21 and 37 years old and have a minimum of three years of relevant work experience or a bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university.

Potential Air Marshals must be able to obtain a Top Secret security clearance, which includes a thorough background investigation and a polygraph exam. Candidates must also pass a medical exam and a physical abilities test.

Air Marshals undergo extensive training, including basic federal law enforcement training as well as training specific to the Air Marshals program. Agency-specific training includes close quarters combat, surveillance, and investigative techniques.

Firearms proficiency is important to any law enforcement officer, but for Federal Air Marshals it is paramount. Given the close range and vast potential for collateral damage—including passengers and critical airplane components—Air Marshals are said to go through the most extensive firearms training of any law enforcement agency. Their qualifications standards are among the most stringent in the industry.

Job Growth and Salary Outlook for Federal Air Marshals

Over the history of the Federal Air Marshals program, the size and scope of the agency have varied widely. In recent years, it has seen a tremendous expansion as the need for armed security on planes has increased, though the number of Air Marshals currently in service remains a secret, making the growth outlook difficult to gauge.

Air Marshals can expect to earn between about $40,000 and $70,000 per year, depending on assignment location, experience, and education.

Is a Career as a Federal Air Marshal Right For You?

The job of a Federal Air Marshal has become increasingly more important and vital to the security of the commercial transportation industry. The training received by Air Marshals is high stress and high stakes, so be sure you're up for the challenge. Of course, if you have a fear of flying or don’t do well on planes, this probably isn’t the job for you. If you enjoy extensive travel and don't mind spending long hours on flights, though, you may find that protecting the skies as a Federal Air Marshal is the perfect criminology career for you.