What Does a Federal Air Marshal Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

Image shows a woman sleeping on an airplane and holding a sleeping baby, and there is a federal air marshal beside her giving a thumbs-up. Text reads: "A day in the life of a federal air marshal: detect, deter, and defeat hostile acts against aviation; protect passengers and crews of commercial flights; sit aboard random flights to monitor passengers for potential threats and take enforcement action when necessary; median annual salary: $67,000"

Image by Catherine Song © The Balance 2019

Federal Air Marshals help keep the skies safe by protecting passengers and crew of commercial flights from hostile acts and attacks. They work for the Transportation Security Agency (TSA), which is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Federal Air Marshal Duties & Responsibilities

The job generally requires the ability to perform the following duties:

  • Detect, deter and defeat hostile acts against aviation
  • Sit aboard random flights to monitor passengers for potential threats and take enforcement action when necessary
  • Protect passengers and crew of commercial flights
  • Participate in multi-agency task forces
  • Participate in in land-based investigative assignments to proactively fight terrorism

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.

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.

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.

Federal Air Marshal Salary

A Federal Air Marshal's salary can vary depending on location and experience:

  • Median Annual Salary: $67,000
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: $118,000
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: $38,000

Source: PayScale, 2019

Education, Training, & Certification

It takes effort and dedication to become a Federal Air Marshal, and the TSA hires only the most qualified individuals for the job. To apply to be 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.

  • Training: Air Marshals must 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.
  • Additional qualifications: Potential Air Marshals must be able to obtain security clearance, which includes a thorough background investigation, a polygraph exam, and a psychological assessment. Candidates must also pass a medical exam and a physical abilities test.

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 must go through extensive firearms training.

Federal Air Marshal Skills & Competencies

To be successful in this role, you’ll generally need the following skills and qualities:

  • Physical strength and agility: Federal Air Marshals must be able to quickly take action to deter safety threats.
  • Communication skills: People in this position must effectively and efficiently relay information to all people involved in a potential threatening situation and explain the findings of their investigations.
  • Critical-thinking skills: Air marshals must be able to think critically and independently to respond effectively and quickly to a variety of security-related situations.
  • Discretion: Air marshals perform the majority of their work undercover and must be careful not to give away their position.

Job Outlook

Over the history of the Federal Air Marshals program, the size and scope of the agency have varied widely. The number of Air Marshals currently in service remains a secret, making the growth outlook difficult to gauge. However, it's probably safe to assume that Air Marshals will be needed as long commercial planes are flying.

Work Environment

The job of a Federal Air Marshal is vital to the security of the commercial transportation industry. The work done by an Air Marshal is high stress and high stakes, and the training is intense, so candidates must be able to handle the pressure.

Air marshals must be prepared to be assigned to a variety of locations across the United States and even around the world. They also 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.

Work Schedule

Federal Air Marshals are often expected to work long hours, including evenings, overnights, early mornings, and weekends. They may also be called to work with very little notice.

Comparing Similar Jobs

People who are interested in becoming Federal Air Marshals may also consider other careers with these median salaries:

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018

How to Get the Job

Find a Job Opening

You can search for Federal Air Marshal jobs on the U.S. government's job website, USAJobs.


To apply to be 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. You can apply via the USAJobs website.

Complete the Hiring Process

If you're chosen to continue with the hiring process, you must successfully pass the following to be eligible for a job offer:

  • Panel interview
  • Psychological assessment
  • Medical examination (including drug testing)
  • Polygraph
  • Physical training assessment
  • Background investigation