Can you actually spot a US Marshal on a plane?

Jul 6, 2023 7:29 AM PDT
2 minute read
us marshall

Oakland police officer Melissa Baddy, in Oakland, Ca. on Tuesday June 22, 2010, checks out the Federal Air Marshal program during a job fair. (Photo By Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)


If you do have a marshal on your flight, chances are you’ll be able to spot them easier than you might think. Here’s why.

There are many tall tales surrounding U.S. Marshals and what services they may or may not offer in the air. Notably, this takes place in movies, where passengers either think they spot a marshal (or actually spot one). However, the odds of finding one on your flight are far smaller in real life. However, if you have a marshal on your flight, chances are you’ll be able to spot them easier than you might think. Here’s why:

The Federal Air Marshal Service, or FAMS, has been around for more than 60 years. But their role(s) during that time has changed greatly. 

Today, marshals who do fly are likely to be dressed as a civilian. They are more likely to be on planes heading into or from Washington D.C than other destinations. They will also attend flights that are deemed to be high-risk, though they rarely actually intervene with unruly passengers. 

In most cases, marshals fly in pairs but won’t sit together. (Take note if you see them board together.) They will also sit in an aisle seat, usually toward the front of the plane, either in first class or economy seating. (While other avid travelers swear marshals sit in the rear of the plane.) There are also conflicting reports as to whether marshals will board early or bring up the rear, allowing all passengers to board before taking a seat themselves. 

Marshals are also unlikely to have any luggage and may wear clothing that is too warm (or too cool) for the climate, as they will take multiple flights per day. 

Representation of a Federal Air Marshal badge.

In addition, a marshal will never: use headphones, drink alcohol or sleep. They will also be dressed in business casual clothing, likely something baggy enough to conceal their weapon. 

FAMS is under TSA, and, therefore, a portion of Homeland Security

According to TSA, marshals fly daily on both commercial and international trips though the odds of them actually being on your plane are quite slim. Today there are thousands of marshals in the air at any given time, but compared to pre-9/11 days, it’s a huge improvement. At the time of the attacks, just 33 marshals were employed by the government. 

Today, there is a marshal on about 5% of flights. That’s it! But considering there are thousands of flights per day, it would be too much to keep up with, not to mention a costly part of taxes at work with airfare alone. 

If you do happen to spot a marshal, keep it to yourself. Flight attendants will know where to find them. And it’s considered a big no-no to out them or ask about their position, especially while on the plane. Instead, kick back and be glad you’re on a protected flight. And that you spotted a secret that few else are apt to realize.


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