As a frequent flyer with a security background I am always aware of my surroundings. Especially on international flights to destinations with a higher risk level.
The last time I flew to Amsterdam, I believe that I was sitting close to an air marshal, who was posing as businessperson jetting to Europe. They look no different than the hundreds of other passengers with a newspaper or magazine on their lap, and smartphone in their hand. Except for their semi-automatic handgun tucked discreetly out of sight, their specialized martial arts training for fighting in close quarters, and a readiness to vault out of their seats to take on and take out a suicidal hijacker or bomber at 31,000 feet.
In Canada, air marshals are one of the best secret weapons in the war on terror. Highly trained officers from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police serve as in-flight security officers on Canadian commercial flights around the globe. For all the many visible and growing, layers of airport security – metal detectors, X-ray machines, and uniformed screeners and now high-tech body scanners – they’re the one layer of security you’ll never see. Should there be a breakdown in intelligence, an oversight at the airline check-in counter, or something missed during screening that allowed a terrorist slip through, they are the last line of defence.
Formally known as the Canadian Air Carrier Protective Program, Canada’s in-flight security initiative was born in the weeks and months after 9/11. Today, it has evolved into a “world-class program,” says assistant commissioner Pat McDonell, who heads the RCMP’s protective policing unit, including the in-flight officers.
Of course, it is not feasible to add these particular agents to all commercial flights, but the fact that they may be on a flight is a deterrent in itself. Because there are not enough air marshals to cover every flight, their assignments are kept secret. No one knows which passenger is the air marshal, or even if an air marshal is present on the flight at all.
All air marshals are continually briefed on the most up-to-date intelligence from around the world. They do not receive classified intelligence reports specifically tailored to their every mission but instead rely upon general briefings from other agencies. It’s an approach to protect Canadians whether they are travelling internationally or domestically. The program is maintained by several countries is an important weapon in the fight against terrorism.