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COVID-19: Federal Air Marshal Service Should Document Its Response to Cases and Facilitate Access to Testing

GAO-21-595 Published: Jun 23, 2021. Publicly Released: Jun 23, 2021.
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Fast Facts

Air marshals work at airports, on airplanes, and in other public spaces where they routinely come in close contact with others. The U.S. Federal Air Marshal Service took steps to protect employees from infection of COVID-19 at work by providing N95 masks and encouraging employees to telework.

Still, 345 employees were infected and 1 air marshal died due to complications of the disease, as of Jan. 2021.

Although the Service created protocols to guide how to respond when employees become sick with COVID-19, it hasn't consistently documented how it has done so or made testing readily available. We recommended it do so to protect air marshals.

Air marshals provide security at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

Three air marshals standing side by side in an airport terminal.

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What GAO Found

The U.S. Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS), within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), reported 345 cases of COVID-19 among employees, as of January 31, 2021.

Federal Air Marshal Service's Reported Cases of COVID-19, as of January 31, 2021

Federal Air Marshal Service's Reported Cases of COVID-19, as of January 31, 2021

Note: Cases included in the figure were confirmed with a positive COVID-19 test and reported to the Federal Air Marshal Service by the employee.

To protect air marshals from COVID-19, FAMS provided supplies like N95 masks and implemented new telework and leave policies. FAMS also created protocols for responding to employees with COVID-19, but has not consistently documented their implementation. By doing so, FAMS could better ensure it is taking the required steps to protect employees and the flying public. GAO also found FAMS does not routinely facilitate employee access to COVID-19 testing. FAMS recommends employees seek testing through their medical provider or local public health officials, but air marshals in all three field offices GAO met with either noted barriers to testing or benefits to improved access to tests. In January 2021, FAMS employees became eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations, but Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance says testing continues to be important even as vaccinations become available. By facilitating access to testing, FAMS could better ensure employee health and continued operations.

Starting in February 2020, FAMS adjusted the number and types of flights air marshals covered. In April 2020, amidst a decline in U.S. carrier flights, the number of flights FAMS covered declined by 90 percent compared to average monthly flights pre-pandemic. By June 2020, FAMS had resumed pre-pandemic flight levels. From April through August 2020, FAMS made operational changes to increase its flight coverage that also resulted in FAMS covering different types of flights, compared to those it covered prior to the pandemic. For example, due to travel restrictions, FAMS stopped covering most international flights but increased coverage of other types of flights. Starting in April 2020, FAMS also increased air marshals' non-flight work, such as providing a security presence at airports and national events.

Why GAO Did This Study

In the U.S. there have been over 29 million cumulative reported cases of COVID-19 and about 524,000 reported deaths, as of March 23, 2021. Public health officials have recommended social distancing and other steps to reduce the spread of the disease, but air marshals often work on planes where they cannot fully adopt these measures. The CARES Act included a provision for GAO to conduct monitoring and oversight of the federal government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This report examines (1) how many air marshals have been diagnosed with COVID-19; (2) FAMS's steps to protect air marshals' health; and (3) how FAMS adapted its operations during the pandemic.

GAO analyzed FAMS data on COVID-19 cases among employees, reviewed agency guidance, analyzed FAMS flight operations reports, and interviewed FAMS leadership as well as air marshals at a non-generalizable sample of three field offices selected for variation in number of COVID-19 cases, among other things. This is a public version of a sensitive report that GAO issued in May 2021. Information that DHS deemed sensitive has been omitted.


GAO recommends that FAMS (1) consistently document steps taken in response to an employee's diagnosis with COVID-19 and (2) routinely facilitate employee access to testing for COVID-19. DHS concurred with both of GAO's recommendations and identified actions it will take to implement them.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Office of Law Enforcement - Federal Air Marshal Service The Executive Assistant Administrator/Director of FAMS should ensure that FAMS officials consistently document steps taken to implement agency protocols following identification of employees with COVID-19. (Recommendation 1)
In June 2021, we found that the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) was not consistently documenting its implementation of protocols in response to cases of COVID-19 among the workforce. DHS concurred with our recommendation to ensure that steps were documented. As of March 2024, FAMS officials told us they were developing a policy to guide FAMS's response to any future such events. The policy will incorporate lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic including the need for a standardized means of demonstrating compliance with future protocols. Given that the COVID-19 pandemic has ended, to fully implement this recommendation, FAMS officials will need to provide evidence that they have plans in place to consistently document steps taken to implement agency protocols in response to any future communicable disease outbreak.
Office of Law Enforcement - Federal Air Marshal Service The Executive Assistant Administrator/Director of FAMS should routinely facilitate employee access to COVID-19 testing. (Recommendation 2)
Closed – Implemented
In June 2021, we found air marshals faced barriers getting tested for COVID-19 and the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) did not routinely facilitate employee access to such testing. We recommended that FAMS do so and the agency agreed. In response, beginning in March 2022, FAMS began procuring and making COVID-19 tests available to employees. As of April 2023, FAMS has provided employees with over 16,000 tests. By routinely facilitating employee access to testing, FAMS helped employees better ensure their health, the health of others, and FAMS's continued security operations.

Full Report

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