The below story is contributed by reader Sean Black who was one of first U.S.Federal Air Marshals selected after 9/11. You can find him on Twitter- @Official_SBlack
Do you remember when flying was fun? Let your mind wander and take you back to a time when you could travel in style like Don Draper, cigarette in one hand and a martini in another. There were no X-rated body scans and your shoes stayed on. Life was good. Much has changed in today’s aviation environment since the deregulation of 1978, the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and the recent COVID-19 pandemic.
We all know that flying can be an aggravating exercise in being shoved and herded like well-branded cattle through America’s airports. A person boarding a flight today must endure long security lines, intrusive putdowns, screaming and sick children, demanding drunks, and cannabis-infused college students. Mix all those personalities together on a flying aluminum tube at 37,000 feet and you have a recipe for disaster. It’s no wonder that Airline travel today is more about safety and survival than carefree adventure. It is an exercise of patience rather than perfection.
Even though flying has changed drastically for the American public, the Pilots and crewmembers would just prefer a safe and care free flight. And how do I know that?
For over twenty years I have served in Law Enforcement and I was one of first U.S. Federal Air Marshals selected after 9/11.
During those early days following September 11th, many of us were called from the special ranks of veteran SWAT officers, Navy SEALS, Delta Force and a few hand selected airborne soldiers who felt compelled again to serve. Anyone who knew me before I took the leap into the undercover world would certainly have written me off. I was a poster boy for the wild bunch. Running away from a parents divorce and kicked out of the house at age 15, I worked a series of glamorous jobs that ranged from ranch hand, to fruit picker. When I finally had come to my senses, I had an epiphany and joined the U.S. Army at the ripe old age of seventeen. It’s where I discovered my adrenaline charged calling by jumping out of perfectly good airplanes, earning those silver jump wings and that coveted beret. Eventually, all roads led me to Law Enforcement where I climbed the ladder to SWAT and undercover Investigations.
It’s been twenty years now since 9/11 and some of us are retiring from the Law Enforcement world. But it wasn’t long ago that we were eyewitnesses to a changing aviation world where security took center stage. In lifting the veil on this secretive world, let’s look at your flight from Los Angeles to London. You have probably played the Air Marshal guessing game. “Is there an Air Marshal on board” and “where do they sit?” When I served as an International Air Marshal supervisor, I always preferred to think outside the box. With the critical flights we covered, I always aimed to inject good old fashioned “hi jinx” and fun into the undercover mix.
It’s a well-published fact that in order to protect your flight, some of the Air Marshals will sit in First or Business class. You probably guessed they were wearing an expensive golf shirt and sporting a neat military-type haircut. In reality, you missed the mark. Our Air Marshal is wearing a clerical collar and masquerading as a catholic priest. He’s the one seated by the window and discussing the finer points of communion.
Now if you take a closer look, I would also guess that you missed the other undercover Air Marshal. She is our pride and joy and the “female sleeper agent.” She’s disguised as a frumpy Midwest mom with fake glasses, sporting a Chicago bears sweatshirt and seated in economy. If you need more help recognizing her, she’s the one who has a SIG Sauer .357 semi automatic strapped to her body and reading the “Better homes and garden” magazine.
In the Air Marshal world, we use all sorts of trickery and deception to play “the grey man”. That’s a loving term for just an ordinary person who is for lack of better description, is rather unremarkable. He or she is just an ordinary Joe. We use fake names and create false professions. We craft backstories to fool ordinary passengers and watch the bad guys. And that’s why on some flights;
I’ll carry my fake Irish or Australian passports. You might know me as “Rory O’ Neil or Connor Brown”.
Many of you think Federal Air Marshals are restricted from drinking alcohol on our flights. There again, is where trickery and tradecraft collide. I take great pride and satisfaction when I’m ignored sitting in business class, and sipping on a Bloody Mary. What you didn’t know is the flight Attendant working in “co hoots” with me has brought over a small bottle of “vodka” to stir into the “Bloody Mary”. If you look a bit closer, it’s not really vodka, but water. We use a slight of hand. It’s a simple magic trick. By watching me stir in the vodka, we use a deception that changes your perception. And it’s that new perception that “becomes the reality”.
Throughout those long years, we have spent on patrol, we have developed a sixth sense for criminal and terrorist behavior. When it comes down to the good, the bad and the ugly parts of flying, we have a “spidey sense” if you will. As barometers of human behavior, we observe a daily parade of misbehaving passengers and discern the human condition. From drugged-up celebrities, sex-crazed cult leaders, real estate scam artists and 60-year-old hookers headed to Vegas to strike their fortunes, we have seen it all.
The truth is that flying can be fun when people work together and use common sense. We relish the good passengers who are kind, courteous and have all their documents in order. We appreciate those who are nice to the Flight attendants and crew. We cherish your attention to detail, and when you board in your assigned groups. We smile when you have taken the time to use personal hygiene and appreciate those who don’t fly in their pajamas.
With all the good behavior we encounter, there are those times when we also experience the bad. While some folks believe that Air Marshals should be arresting drunks, and solving passenger disputes, we generally stay away from those conflicts. The flight attendants are well trained and we prefer to remain incognito for fear of being drawn out and exposed.
In our line of undercover work, we don’t harass the hookers. We stop the hijackers.
Even before you board your flight, Air Marshals can get a sense of how things will be. We look at the boarding area and cringe with the Gate agent. She is the one trying in vain to have passenger’s board with their assigned group. Instead, they defy all logic and bunch up together by clinging and clogging the gate areas. In our Industry they are called “Gate Lice.”
As U.S. Federal Air Marshals we aren’t above suffering the indignation of getting walloped on the back of the head by the pigtailed European hiker who comes aboard with her oversized backpack. Bad behavior isn’t just confined to the young. It’s also assigned to the enamored and hormone charged couples that aim for the “mile high club”. And if that wasn’t enough, Flight attendants must endure a daily barrage of passengers who bring their oversized and overweight carry on luggage on board. We shake our heads in wonder as they expect the flight attendants to hoist, juggle and jam their oversized bag into the overhead bins.
The ugly situations we encounter happen on a daily basis. We watch in silent horror as a parent changes her babies’ smelly diapers on the tray tables. We bow our heads as the twelve-year-old picks his nose, “digs for gold” and wipes the crusty prize on the inflight magazine.
The award for the worst behavior, “the crème of the de crème” goes to the pimple poppers and feet pickers flying on today’s aircraft.
On a recent flight to Honolulu, I observed a retired TV actress in first-class flip off her sandals and proceeded to pick and peel the dead skin off her feet for over fifteen minutes. After the flight, we observed the latent evidence of her crime. What remained was a pile of scaly and dried human flesh. And finally, we can’t forget the age-old pastime of disgruntled and rudely behaving flyers. They are the ones who cut loose of a toxic plume of gas as they travel throughout the cabin, silently spraying everyone in their wake. That’s the subtle art form known as “crop dusting”.
As an Air Marshal supervisor, I have worn many hats to fellow agents, passengers and Airline crews. I have acted as a mentor, social worker, marriage counselor, doctor, lawyer, psychologist and priest.
Perhaps that comes with age or experience, I do not know. The perfect flight is the one we all fantasize about. It’s what we love about flying, and at times, it can also be about the things we hate.
Today, as I approach the end of my time in Law Enforcement, I find myself flying less and enjoying my time on the ground more. I spend most of my days protecting actors and the occasional spoiled celebrity. And that’s ok. It’s the circle of life. But every now and then, I look to the sky and yearn for my fellow Airline partners, the smell of jet fuel, warm cookies and the occasional inflight meal. As I prepare to board another flight on this day to Mexico, I hope and pray for the best in our human condition. But most of all, we like it when we all arrive on time, safe, sane and sound. That’s the American way.