EGG HARBOR CITY, N.J. - Even sitting in a conference room, Michael LaFrance looks straight out of a Bourne movie. He has icy gray-blue eyes, a shaved head and a salt-and-pepper beard. His freckled arms are covered in black and blue tattoos. While LaFrance could pass as a rogue CIA assassin on screen, in real life his job is aboveboard, albeit still secretive: A federal air marshal.
Technically, he's the "supervisory air marshal in charge" of the training operations at the Transportation Security Administration Training Center (TSATC), whose campus is close to the Atlantic City International Airport. He's an air marshal shaping the future of air marshals.
"The movie that probably portrays us the best is 'Bridesmaids,'" LaFrance said with a straight face, referring to Ben Falcone's character, Air Marshal Jon. "I'm totally kidding."
The conference room was full of LaFrances - former and active air marshals who looked the part. Instructors wore tactical pants and tucked-in polos; administrators donned crisp suits. We were about to get a rare glimpse into their training and find out what it takes to become an air marshal.
- - -
The truth behind the myths
If you don't know much about air marshals, mission accomplished.
The service has been an anonymous layer of public security since the concept was created in response to a spate of plane hijackings in the 1960s and expanded in the 1970s. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, air marshals moved under the newly created Department of Homeland Security and TSA. The number of air marshals grew from 33 to thousands.
Today, the exact number is secret. They travel among us, armed and undercover, on planes, subways and ferries and monitor airports, train and bus stations. It's a lot of pressure, they say, particularly on a plane.
"You're in a metal tube surrounded by 200-plus unknown people, traveling 500 miles per hour, 30,000 feet in the air," said Martin Haibach, the acting assistant supervisory air marshal in charge of the TSATC, who's been with the service for 17 years.
LaFrance said there's no set minimum or average on how much air marshals fly. "It just doesn't work like that," he said. "It's based on the needs of the service and what's going on in the world at that moment that would need our attention."
They can't say how many air marshals are out there or where they sit on planes ("That's part of the surprise," LaFrance said). They also can't share any battle stories from their flights, even though some have ended up in the news.
What they can disclose is that FAMs always travel in "squads," never alone. They're not on every flight as there are simply too many to cover (the Federal Aviation Administration handles more than 45,000 each day). They're allowed to watch in-flight movies, read books, take breaks to nap and eat. They are not allowed to drink alcohol on board. Sometimes they tell flight attendants they're on board; sometimes they don't. They fight jet lag with regular exercise.
And contrary to popular mythology, they do not have to disclose who they are if confronted. They have the discretion to lie to keep cover, or reveal themselves as they see fit. If a passenger is being disruptive, for example, they can identify themselves to passengers to help de-escalate the situation.
When it comes to their covers, they'll fall back on tales of former career or keep things vague. "The best one is 'I'm going to a funeral,'" LaFrance said. The key is not to get in over your head with an elaborate yarn, they say. They learn how to do just that, and other essentials of flying under the radar, at FAM school.
- - -
A strict process for a serious commitment
To become an air marshal, applicants must be U.S. citizens between the ages of 21 and 36, although they can make exceptions for military veterans over 36. They need to have a bachelor's degree or three years of relevant work experience. They have to undergo a drug test as well as a criminal and credit background check. They have interviews, mental and physical evaluations, a polygraph test and a physical training assessment. Starting salaries begin around $60,000.
The job attracts a variety of backgrounds, but it's common to get people who've worked in military, law enforcement or government, LaFrance said.
Air marshal Regina W. Boateng, who's now the assistant supervisory air marshal in charge of strategic communications and public affairs, says her application and interview process took roughly nine months. At the time, she was working as a TSA screener and was interested in a career at the Drug Enforcement Administration until she met an air marshal at her college's career fair.
"All I heard was him say 'fly all over the world,' and I didn't hear anything else," Boateng said. "I was like 'sign me up.'"
About four months after she got her conditional offer, Boateng was off to the academy, which lasts around five months.
Phase one starts with roughly seven weeks of what LaFrance calls "Police 101" at a Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in either Glynco, Ga., or Artesia, N.M. Alongside students pursuing other fields like the Secret Service or Amtrak police, their basic training covers a broad curriculum, including crowd control, constitutional law, crime scene preservation, responding to individuals in mental health crisis and more - everything you'd need to know for an entry-level federal law enforcement position.
If they pass Police 101, it's off to Atlantic City.
- - -
Learning to handcuff in an airplane aisle
The TSATC's main classroom building looks like any high school in the country. An American flag hangs in the hallway. There are dropped ceilings with fluorescent light panels, a gym that could hold an entire football team and shiny linoleum floors.
FAM candidates walk around filed in two straight lines. You can tell what stage of training the candidates are in by their outfits. New students are required to wear dark suits before they graduate to uniforms. They also carry a guidon - a flagpole with streamers that identifies their class.
"There's also a game to it," LaFrance said. If just one person in the class breaks a rule - shows up late, for example - instructors will ball up their streamer with a rubber band for a given period so the class has to march around with their shame. "We've even made them carry a kettlebell around passing it to each other for a week," LaFrance said.
It drives home a message: "Once you're an air marshal, you're part of a team," LaFrance said. "If the teammate messes up, you all mess up."
The agency has faced misconduct and workplace complaints in recent years, prompting Congress to investigate. Between 2016 and 2018 fiscal years, FAM workers filed 230 discrimination complaints to TSA's Civil Rights Division, according to a Government Accountability Office report. There have been reports of alcohol abuse, job-related health issues and misuse of firearms. Questions have also been raised about the agency's ability to deter terrorism attacks. The Washington Post asked the agency for comment on misconduct but has not received it.
Over the course of eight and a half weeks in N.J., candidates learn the duties of an air marshal. "Training ranges from observation techniques, legal and investigative, physical fitness, aircraft tactics, active threat and especially firearms," LaFrance said, adding that air marshals have the highest firearms qualification requirements of any federal law enforcement agency.
To graduate, candidates must achieve a score that would qualify them to be firearms instructors in other law enforcement fields. They're also required to complete 112 hours of additional training every year, half at their local field office and half in Atlantic City.
Students carry out high-pressure drills designed to mimic a crisis, like active-shooter or terrorist attacks, as well as lower-stakes scenarios, like disruptive travelers. Although the air marshal program is rooted in counterterrorism, dealing with unruly or intoxicated passengers has always been part of the job, LaFrance said.
"Anything that a law enforcement officer would respond to, we would do the same on an aircraft," he added.
Candidates learn what is called "a common strategy" developed by the TSA, FAA and airlines that offers guidance on when air marshals should get involved in onboard situations. Flight attendants are trained to deal with passengers up to a certain extent, but once it becomes an assault and threatens the safety of others, "that could be a reason for an air marshal team to get involved," LaFrance said.
In rooms with padded floors for combat training, students learn how to subdue unruly passengers with control tactics such as tools like handcuffs and martial arts training. In warehouses with replica airplane cabins, jet bridges and terminals, they learn how to use those skills in more realistic settings. "It's very hard to handcuff in the [airplane] aisle," one instructor tells me. "That's one of our biggest things that we go over."
The agency hires actors who stand in as travelers, carrying props like suitcases. Instructors will make the training environment more stressful by turning on loud music and/or turning down the lights so candidates can learn to address symptoms of combat-like tunnel vision and increased heart rate and temporary loss of hearing.
In classrooms, they go over emergency medicine techniques, surveillance strategies and dealing with the physiological effects of stress from the job, like witnessing assaults or use of force. Haibach says there are "a number of outlets" for air marshals to turn to with mental health concerns, including assistance programs that provide counseling and peer-to-peer support.
- - -
Bottomless travel, on the low
The job comes with all the usual benefits - medical, dental, vision, life insurance, retirement - but also unlimited opportunities to travel. The agency's mission is to protect the country's transportation systems, which means FAMs can fly on any U.S. carrier, whether or not their flights are departing from the United States.
The travel comes with caveats, though. For starters, they can't collect loyalty points or airlines miles. If they could, "every FAM would have enough miles to go to the moon and back," Haibach said.
Their missions aren't like our vacations either, where they get to spend a week in a new place. "An air marshal goes somewhere for one day, but they go 20 times," LaFrance said.
Like other law enforcement officers, FAMs work nights, weekends and holidays.
But perhaps the greatest difficulty of it all: keeping all that travel a secret. FAMs can't share their travel stories with civilians. That means no Instagram posts, no bragging rights. If you went on a trip and didn't post about it, did it even happen?
LaFrance said the most exciting place he's been, and he could only mention he's been "everywhere."
"All over Europe. All over Asia. All over the world," he said. No specifics.
When I asked if Boateng could share how many passports she's gone through, she replied, "No, ma'am."