Air Marshals Go More Casual with Dress Code

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The director of the Federal Air Marshal service has dropped the strict dress code requirements for armed undercover air marshals on commercial flights. The agents had been required to wear jackets and collared shirts, but they had long argued their outfits blew their cover. Frank Terreri, a veteran air marshal, talks with Madeleine Brand about the change.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY. Beginning Friday, Federal Air Marshals will have a relaxed dress code. They'll be allowed to chose what they want to wear instead of having to wear business attire onboard planes.

Frank Terreri signed up to be an air marshal soon after September 11th. He now represents about 1,500 of his colleagues in a professional group. And he joins me now on the phone. And is this a good thing, this relaxed dress code?

Mr. FRANK TERRERI (Federal Air Marshal): The policy change by FAM management will ultimately protect the American public.

BRAND: Well, was there a problem that you would sort of stick out like sore thumbs? Everyone is wearing shorts and Dockers or something casual, and you're wearing button up suits.

Mr. TERRERI: Yes, the way the former director instilled the policy for the dress code, it made us stand out like sore thumbs. It made us very obvious to the flying public, which in turn makes us very obvious to any terrorist who might be doing surveillance on airline flights.

And the main basis for us being effective is maintaining our undercover identity. Because without our anonymity, we're not able to do our jobs effectively.

BRAND: What about your work conditions? I understand now there are more air marshals on board flights now. There's more demand for you to be on planes these days. What are your work conditions like?

Mr. TERRERI: Well, work conditions initially - when we started, we were promised a four-day work week - three days off due to the rigors of flying. After six months, we were mandated to fly five days a week. And basically, our hours exceed all FAA regulations that govern pilots and flight attendants because were not under the FAA.

And you have a big burnout rate among federal air marshals. I mean, we're there to do the job, but we need some more down time. And that's what were working on with director right now, to institute some more ground-based opportunities for air marshals.

BRAND: Ground based opportunities meaning time off?

Mr. TERRERI: Not necessarily time off, but to conduct airport surveillance operations, counter-surveillance operations, to work with local and state law enforcement at the airport setting.

BRAND: You say there is a high burnout rate. What does that lead to?

Mr. TERRERI: It leads to a high attrition rate. We conducted a survey of our membership, the issues and concerns they have. And safety is ultimately number one. Number two is quality of life, which includes scheduling, because our schedules are varied where your Monday morning you might start at 4:30 in the morning. Three days later, you might start at 8:00 at night. So you really have - you're gone five days and you have no family life, which leads to a very high divorce rate. It leads to a very high attrition rate and a low sense of job satisfaction, and that's something that we're trying to change.

BRAND: If there's a high burnout rate, is it difficult to find qualified applicants, qualified candidates for these jobs?

Mr. TERRERI: Well, that's a problem. Over 250,000 people applied initially after 9/11. And the thousands that were taken - including myself - have an extensive military or law enforcement background, and that's the reason we were chosen right away.

Now, since people are leaving, all this experience is leaving. And they're telling all their friends in law enforcement do not come over to the air marshals because you're not treated well. This means that everybody that we're getting now doesn't really have law enforcement experience, and this is the one job in federal law enforcement where you can not start out new. You cannot be a rookie at 35,000 feet and have to make life and death decisions because ultimately, if the plane gets out of control of you, it's going to be shot down. So you have to take control of it. And that's what bother us. The new hires, that they don't have that experience already.

BRAND: Frank Terreri is a federal air marshal. Thank you very much for joining us.

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