Aviation Security: Federal Air Marshal Service Has Taken Steps to Address Workforce Issues, but Additional Actions Needed
The Federal Air Marshal Service deploys air marshals to help ensure the security of, and to prevent threats to, civil aviation.
We assessed several air marshal workforce issues. Among other things, air marshals have expressed concerns about schedule unpredictability and sleep deprivation. The Service has guidelines for shift lengths and rest periods but doesn’t monitor if they are followed. Also, although the Service has adopted a plan to help prevent discrimination, it hasn’t fully implemented it.
We made 6 recommendations, including assessing workforce health and renewing focus on preventing discrimination.
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What GAO Found
Air marshals continue to express concerns about their health, but the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) has not comprehensively assessed the health of its workforce. Air marshals in all six field offices we visited noted health issues, such as sleep deprivation, as a key quality of life concern. FAMS has taken steps to assess air marshals' individual health, such as requiring medical exams, but has not comprehensively assessed the overall health of its workforce and has not developed a plan to do so. FAMS officials stated that it would be difficult to analyze air marshals' medical records because they are not stored electronically, though they are researching options to do so. FAMS could develop and implement a plan to analyze the employee health data it already collects to identify workforce trends, and use this information to better promote employee welfare consistent with Transportation Security Administration (TSA) leadership principles.
FAMS has taken some steps to address air marshals' concerns about their work schedules. In March 2018, FAMS revised its deployment strategy to expand coverage of certain high risk missions that it typically learns of 72 hours in advance. Following this, changes to air marshals' schedules to accommodate these missions more than doubled. In response, FAMS altered how it staffs these missions and reports that these modifications have reduced schedule changes. FAMS also maintains shift length and rest period guidelines intended to balance mission needs with air marshals' quality of life. However, FAMS does not monitor the extent to which air marshals' actual work hours are consistent with guidelines because it has not identified a need to do so. As a result, it cannot determine how frequently air marshals work beyond guidelines and is not well-positioned to manage risks associated with long work hours.
From fiscal years 2016 through 2018, FAMS employees filed 230 discrimination complaints with TSA's Civil Rights Division, though employees may have reported additional discrimination complaints through other means. In 2012, FAMS adopted an action plan to address discrimination and has taken some steps called for in the plan, such as sustaining a FAMS Ombudsman position. However, due to a loss of management focus on the plan, FAMS has not fully implemented other planned efforts, such as holding diversity focus groups. Taking steps to reaffirm its efforts to prevent discrimination would demonstrate leadership commitment to reducing concerns of discrimination within FAMS.
Why GAO Did This Study
In the wake of 9/11, terrorists continue to target aircraft and airports, underscoring the ongoing threat to civil aviation and the need for effective security measures. FAMS deploys air marshals on selected flights to address such threats and is a key component of TSA's approach to aviation security. However, longstanding challenges faced by FAMS's workforce could impact its ability to carry out its mission.
GAO was asked to review FAMS workforce issues. This report addresses (1) the extent to which FAMS has taken steps to address air marshals' health concerns, (2) the extent to which FAMS has taken steps to address air marshals' concerns about their work schedules, and (3) the number of discrimination complaints FAMS employees have reported and the extent to which FAMS has taken steps to prevent discrimination.
GAO analyzed TSA and FAMS policies; documentation of efforts to address air marshals' quality of life issues; and FAMS data on missions, schedules, and discrimination complaints. GAO also interviewed TSA and FAMS officials, including FAMS management and air marshals in a non-generalizable sample of six FAMS field offices selected to capture a breadth of perspectives.
GAO is making six recommendations to FAMS, including that it implement a plan to assess the health of the FAMS workforce, monitor the extent that air marshals' shifts are consistent with guidelines, and strengthen efforts to prevent discrimination. DHS concurred with all six recommendations.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Office of Law Enforcement - Federal Air Marshal Service||The Executive Assistant Administrator / Director of FAMS should identify and utilize a suitable system that provides information about air marshals' medical qualification status. (Recommendation 1)||
DHS concurred with this recommendation and in January 2021, FAMS officials stated that they had secured funding to develop a case management software system to track this information. In November 2022, FAMS officials told us that FAMS had hired a vendor to develop a system to track air marshals' medical qualification status. However, they told us the development of the system had been delayed due to an administrative issue and the vendor cannot provide an estimated date for completion. To fully address this recommendation, FAMS will need to implement and use a system that provides information about air marshals' medical qualification status.
|Office of Law Enforcement - Federal Air Marshal Service||The Executive Assistant Administrator / Director of FAMS should develop and implement a plan to assess the health and fitness of the FAMS workforce as a whole, including trends over time. (Recommendation 2)||
DHS concurred with this recommendation and in January 2020, DHS officials stated that FAMS had established a team to develop a plan for assessing workforce health and wellness issues. As of November 2022, FAMS officials reported that they had developed and implemented some elements of a plan. Specifically, in 2021, FAMS hired a clinical psychologist who has conducted outreach to the FAMS workforce to identify physical and mental health issues. Also in 2021, FAMS launched a workforce survey to identify job stressors affecting the general overall wellness of federal air marshals. The clinical psychologist has analyzed the survey results and FAMS plans to administer another survey in early 2023. According to FAMS officials, FAMS also tracks injuries among the workforce and has identified trends. To fully address this recommendation, FAMS will need to provide documentation of its plan to assess the health and wellness of its workforce as a whole, including trends over time and its efforts to implement the plan.
|Office of Law Enforcement - Federal Air Marshal Service||The Executive Assistant Administrator / Director of FAMS should identify and implement a means to monitor the extent to which air marshals' actual shifts and rest hours are consistent with scheduling guidelines. (Recommendation 3)||
DHS concurred with this recommendation and in January 2020, DHS officials stated that FAMS would begin tracking air marshals' actual work hours and examine the extent to which air marshals' actual and scheduled hours vary. This information could be helpful, for example, in assessing air marshals' schedule predictability. However, to address the intent of this recommendation, FAMS would need to monitor the extent that air marshals' actual work and rest hours are consistent with FAMS's scheduling guidelines. In November 2022, FAMS officials provided examples of a weekly report they routinely provided to senior FAMS management that summarizes air marshals' work and rest hours. They also provided examples of a monthly report that can be generated by managers to summarize air marshals' planned, scheduled, and actual work hours. These reports may give FAMS management greater insights into FAMS's work hours, but they do not identify the extent to which actual shifts and rest hours are consistent with FAMS's scheduling guidelines. To address this recommendation, FAMS will need to either modify these reports to include information about the extent to which actual shifts and rest hours are consistent with FAMS' scheduling guidelines or develop an additional reporting method that includes this information.
|Office of Law Enforcement - Federal Air Marshal Service||The Executive Assistant Administrator / Director of FAMS should provide all air marshals access to scheduling guidelines, including workday length and rest periods. (Recommendation 4)||
DHS concurred with this recommendation and in June 2020, FAMS management provided the head of each field office with a summary of the scheduling guidelines, including workday length and rest periods. The Director of FAMS then emailed all staff encouraging them to speak with their supervisors to access the summary and stated explicitly that all federal air marshals have access to the document. With access to the scheduling guidelines, air marshals and supervisors may now be better aware of management's intended balance between mission needs and air marshals' quality of life. Further, they may feel more empowered to request schedule changes that may be needed to ensure air marshals are sufficiently rested to carry out their mission. As a result, this recommendation is closed as implemented.
|Office of Law Enforcement - Federal Air Marshal Service||The Executive Assistant Administrator / Director of FAMS should disseminate or otherwise provide supervisory air marshals access to guidance that outlines authorities and procedures for changing an air marshal's work schedule. (Recommendation 5)||
DHS concurred with this recommendation and in June 2020, FAMS management provided the head of each field office with a document summarizing supervisory air marshals' roles in the scheduling process. The Director of FAMS then emailed all staff stating that all federal air marshals, including supervisory air marshals, have access to the document. Providing access to these guidelines should improve the ability of air marshals and their supervisors to address quality of life issues related to long shifts and inadequate rest. As a result, this recommendation is closed as implemented.
|Office of Law Enforcement - Federal Air Marshal Service||The Executive Assistant Administrator / Director of FAMS should take steps to reaffirm and strengthen efforts to prevent discrimination by, for example, updating and following through on its 2012 action plan and renewing leadership commitment to the plan's goals. (Recommendation 6)||
DHS concurred with this recommendation and FAMS officials have told us and provided documentation demonstrating that FAMS has since taken several steps intended to reaffirm and strengthen their efforts to prevent discrimination. For example, in 2020, three FAMS executives and managers joined TSA's 9-person Inclusion Action Committee with the goal of building a more inclusive and diverse TSA workforce. In fall 2020, this committee surveyed TSA employees and held listening sessions to inform a Diversity and Inclusion Roadmap to identify and implement solutions and ensure efforts are sustained. FAMS officials also told us that in January 2020, FAMS created a new position--a Diversity and Inclusion National Coordinator--to assist in building a more inclusive environment by communicating regularly with diversity and inclusion liaisons in all FAMS field offices and headquarters units about training and events related to sexual orientation, race, and gender, among other topics. In January 2021 and in March 2022, FAMS officials told us that they continued to work on these initiatives. As of November 2022, FAMS officials told us that TSA's performance requirements for all staff now include diversity and inclusion elements, such as leadership promoting diversity. They also noted that FAMS's Diversity and Inclusion National Coordinator continues to develop communications and initiatives to promote diversity and prevent discrimination. Further, they noted that a total of 54 FAMS staff serve as diversity and inclusion liaisons and represent 28 FAMS field offices. Finally, FAMS officials told us the FAMS Director has held quarterly meetings with law enforcement organizations-such as the National Organization of Black Women in Law Enforcement, National Native American Law Enforcement, and Middle Eastern Law Enforcement Officers Association to discuss issues affecting FAMS. To fully address this recommendation, FAMS will need to provide documentation of existing efforts and continue to sustain and build upon them.