Government Job Profile: Federal Air Marshal

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As you walk through an airport, you don’t know which people are common travelers and which are law enforcement officers packing high-caliber pistols. Federal air marshals, or FAMs, blend into the crowd and do not draw attention to themselves. They board flights to keep a watchful eye over the cabin. They observe behavior and mitigate any security threats that present themselves. If you have a FAM on your flight, you do not want to find out, but if you need one, a FAM will save your life.

FAMs are employed by the Federal Air Marshal Service which is part of the US Transportation Security Administration. The Federal Air Marshal Service’s motto is “detect, deter, defeat.” Detect refers to their quiet surveillance of passengers on flights. Deter alludes to the possibility that they could be on any domestic or international flight connected with a US airport. Defeat affirms their commitment to prevailing over violence and terrorism in the skies. FAMs also work with other law enforcement officers in cross-agency task forces and other efforts.

FAMs gain satisfaction from their work each time a plane they fly on safely lands. They know that they accomplished their mission that day. Whether they have to draw their weapons or not on a particular flight, their mere presence makes the flight safer for the passengers and crew.

The Education You'll Need and Experience You Need

The Federal Air Marshal Service is an elite law enforcement organization.

The competition for jobs is stiff. Applicants must have a bachelor’s degree and three years of law enforcement experience, including one year of specialized work such as conducting criminal investigations. With some exceptions, FAMs must be hired before turning 37 years old. This age restriction also applies to correctional officers employed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The Selection Process

FAMs are not hired using the normal government hiring process. They go through an entirely different process that is tailored to filling these positions. The hiring process for FAMs is long and includes several background checks.

The first step is filling out the online job application on USAJobs. Once TSA processes the application and deems the applicant qualified on paper, a credit and criminal history check is conducted. If that turns out satisfactorily, the applicant is put through an assessment battery of computer-based assessments of judgment and skills.

A candidate’s first human contact happens after the assessment battery. Panel interviews are conducted with applicants who pass the assessment battery. If a candidate is progressed from there, the candidate is fingerprinted and goes through a fitness assessment. If all goes well there, the candidate is interviewed by a special agent-in-charge at a Federal Air Marshal Service field office.

The special agent-in-charge may give the candidate a conditional job offer. If the candidate accepts, the candidate is medically evaluated. This evaluation includes drug screening.

If a candidate is deemed medically able to do the job, a pre-hire background check is performed.

This check includes verification of information on the job application and another criminal history check.

At last, the final job offer is extended. But the process isn’t over. TSA conducts a full field background investigation on the candidate. An investigator talks with people who know the candidate such as neighbors and former employers. FAMs have top secret clearance and must maintain it to keep their jobs, so the full investigation is extremely thorough.

Once FAMs begin training, they have a two-year probationary period. New hires must make a five-year commitment to the job.

The Training You'll Complete

FAMs complete 17 weeks of initial training divided into two phases. The first phase covers law enforcement basics and is taught at the Federal law enforcement training center in Artesia, New Mexico.

The second phase teaches FAMs the skills that are particular to the position. A few of the topics covered are close quarters self-defense, marksmanship and aircraft safety. This training is conducted at the TSA’s training center in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

What You'll Do

TSA protects airline passengers and crew members by placing FAMs on selected commercial flights. Pilots and crew members know when a FAM is on board and which person it is, but passengers do not know. This allows TSA to leverage the likelihood of a FAM being on board any particular flight. Anyone planning some sort of harm must factor a FAM into their plans, so they serve as a deterrent to violence and terrorism on any flight.

FAMs work behind the scenes to police the skies. Passengers are more familiar with transportation security officers that screen people, baggage and cargo for dangerous materials at security checkpoints and secured areas in airports.

FAMs maintain a heightened alertness for long periods. There is no sleeping on a flight no matter how long it is or how long the FAM has been awake before the flight. Their flight schedules are set in advance, but that doesn’t guarantee a predictable day where they make it home on time. They can always be delayed along with their scheduled flights. FAMs can experience long layovers between flights.

Like other law enforcement officers, FAMs may be called upon to use lethal force. If someone tries to hijack an airplane or commit some other act of violence or terrorism, a FAMs neutralizes the threat even if it means shooting the perpetrator.

Some FAMs participate in interagency task forces and special operations. They lend their expertise to other law enforcement agencies and learn from their colleagues.

What Salary You'll Earn

TSA uses a different pay grade system from most other federal agencies. While most federal agencies use the GS pay grades, TSA uses SV pay bands. FAMs can be hired in one of three pay bands -- G pay band at $39,358 to $60,982 per year, H pay band at $48,007 to $74,390 per year, and I pay band at $58,495 to $90,717 per year. ​

These rates do not include locality-based pay, which increases the salary of federal employees working in areas of the country with high costs of living.