Dress Code May Hinder Air Marshals

NYT – Dress Code May Hinder Their Work, Air Marshals Say [RSS]

Beards are out. So are jeans and athletic shoes. Suit coats are in, even on the steamiest summer days. That dress code, imposed by the Department of Homeland Security, makes federal air marshals uneasy – and not just because casual clothes are more comfortable in cramped airline seats. The marshals fear that their appearance makes it easier for terrorists to identify them, according to a professional group representing more than 1,300 air marshals. “If a 12-year-old can pick them out, a trained terrorist has no problem picking them out,” said John D. Amat, a spokesman for the group, the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.


However, Dave Adams, a spokesman for the service, said, “There is nothing in the policy that says we have to wear a suit and tie” and “there is nothing in the policy that places our federal air marshals at risk.” Mr. Adams said that the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association “is misrepresenting our dress code policy.” Mr. Adams said a dress code was put in place in April 2002 after the airline industry complained that air marshals’ attire was too casual. He said some marshals had worn shorts, blue jeans, sandals and T-shirts while on duty.
“In order to gain respect in a situation, you must be attired to gain respect,” Mr. Adams said in an interview. He said if air marshals were allowed to be too casual in their dress, “they probably would not gain the respect of passengers if a situation were to occur.”

Andrea Houck, 52, who was traveling through New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport this week, said that she thought federal air marshals should be “totally undercover.” “Look around you,” Ms. Houck said as she pointed to other passengers waiting in the food court. “Most people are traveling in T-shirts, sweatshirts and khakis.” She added: “If I was a terrorist and I spotted someone dressed like an air marshal in a suit, I wouldn’t get on that flight. I would get on another one.”

Well, that would be fine, too.

My initial reaction to the headline and lede was, “What idiot came up with this policy?” But, actually reading the story, it seems to be rather overblown. One would think the NYT reporters would have done some research to figure out what the actual policy is, rather than presenting it as a “he said, he said” situation. Either there’s a dress code that requires people to be in a coat and tie or there isn’t; that’s not a matter of opinion.

Travelling during the business day, a significant number of passengers are in business attire. Even in the summer; it’s not as if planes aren’t air conditioned. When I’ve flown on business, I’ve typically been in dress clothes. Wearing one of my jackets makes packing easier and, usually, I’ve needed to be in a jacket and tie when I arrived, anyway. As long as the regulations don’t require that the marshals all wear a Secret Service-type dark suit and sport a crew cut, it’s unclear what the problem is.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Cas says:

    I believe the best solution is to allow sky marshals to do BOTH; some should don “business attire,” while others should mimic the “causal” attire that many travellers adopt. It should also vary according to the time of the flight, and the seat the Air Marshall uses, i.e., there aren’t too many casually dressed people in first class.

  2. jen says:

    They’re supposed to blend more than look presentable, imho. I couldn’t care less if they’re clean shaven and have short hair. All I care about is if they can take down/out a terrorist.

  3. Attila Girl says:

    I actually think athletic shoes and something other than a sport jacket or suit is the best choice, because they have to be able to move around freely in the event of an “event.”

    And the prohibition on beards strikes me as wacked.

    I truly think they should blend in as much as possible; aren’t these people supposed to be undercover? Blending should be a priority.