As the holiday travel season approaches, the airlines are trying to convince people it’s safe to fly and touting studies showing the risk of getting COVID-19 on a flight is minimal, but nearly 100 federal air marshals have tested positive for the virus.
Last week, a number of COVID-19 cases hit the Federal Air Marshals Dallas office and temporarily shuttered its field office in Philadelphia. And earlier in October, an air marshal based in Minneapolis died from COVID-19; several air marshals told Yahoo News the deceased officer believed he had contracted the virus on a flight.
The Transportation Security Administration told Yahoo News that 98 federal air marshals have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus since the start of the pandemic, and 14 of those cases are active, though it does not address whether those cases were from flying. Yet some air marshals — armed law enforcement officers who protect civil aircraft from attacks — directly link at least some of those infections to their time spent in airports and on flights.
Both associations that represent many of the nearly 3,000 federal air marshals also believe that at least some of their members contracted the coronavirus from their work on flights, though they acknowledge some of these cases were from the start of the pandemic, prior to the nationwide shutdown or the introduction of masks on flights.
“The [Air Marshal Association] knows of one [federal air marshal] case at the start of the outbreak that is linked with certainty to a European flight,” said John Casaretti, president of the association, which represents about half the air marshals.
Sonya Hightower LaBosco, president of the Air Marshal National Council, another organization that represents some air marshals, also said it has identified cases in which it believes its members contracted the virus from airplanes. “Absolutely, we know they got it flying,” she said.
While air travel is at a historic low, federal air marshals are still flying on aircraft to protect them from terrorist attacks, a job that now comes with a new set of risks amid a pandemic. The recent death of an air marshal, and other recent cases, come at a time when airlines are desperate to convince the public that flying is safe, emphasizing their ventilation systems, disinfectant procedures and mandatory mask requirements.
The risk of contracting the coronavirus from flying is the subject of a number of studies with somewhat conflicting conclusions. A recent airline trade industry study claimed that the risk of transmitting COVID-19 is minimal, and a new report released Tuesday by researchers at Harvard University says that “the research to date indicates a relatively very low risk of acquiring SARS-CoV-2 while flying.” But another report released this week in Ireland pointed to a nearly empty long-haul flight where 13 of 49 passengers — most of them masked — contracted the virus.
One of the issues facing air marshals, and others serving in law enforcement positions, is that it’s often impossible to know for sure where they contracted the virus. A bill passed by the Senate in August extended benefits for public safety officers — air marshals are law enforcement and fall under that designation — which creates a general presumption that a public safety officer who dies of COVID-19 or related complications or sustained a personal injury in the line of duty is thus eligible for death and disability benefits.
“Since the implementation of masks and distancing measures, the AMA has assisted about 36 FAMs with COVID-related benefits claims, but more cases occur each month,” said Casaretti, the Air Marshal Association president.
“While the paperwork may indicate that FAMs contracted COVID because of the type of work they do, it does not necessarily mean they contracted COVID on an aircraft,” he added.
Trying to extrapolate risks of flying from air marshals to the general public is difficult, because the officers spend much more time in airports and on flights than most of the flying public.
“FAMs fly more than most flight crews, and spend countless hours in transportation hubs and hotels, so the risk will never be zero,” Casaretti said. “They endure the inherent COVID-related in-flight risks caused by confined spaces and recirculated air because terrorist and criminal activity continues to target aviation.”
It’s also impossible to know how many air marshals have been infected. While 98 air marshals have tested positive for COVID-19, the total infected since the beginning of the pandemic is likely higher, because in the pandemic’s early days, air marshals, like others, often couldn’t get access to tests, according to interviews and internal agency communications.
In some cases, air marshals have gotten sick while on duty and have been forced to quarantine in hotels in the U.S. and overseas, waiting for symptoms to subside, according to those familiar with their operations. (Two air marshals who fall into that category told Yahoo News they believe they had COVID-19, but they were unable to get tested.)
The TSA did not answer Yahoo News’ question about the number of what the agency calls “presumptive cases” but provided a general statement about its COVID-19 policies.
“Regarding Federal Air Marshals, TSA implemented significant measures throughout all of its operations to limit the spread of COVID-19,” an official with the agency told Yahoo News. “All TSA employees, including Federal Air Marshals, are required to wear personal protective equipment while on the job and in public-facing roles where social distancing is not possible.”
The TSA says it takes “very seriously” all cases of COVID-19 among its employees, as well as potential exposure. “In instances where federal air marshals have tested positive for COVID-19, access to field offices has been temporarily restricted for cleaning,” the agency said.
Yet some within the Federal Air Marshal Service say the nature of the job often put them at odds with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and that, particularly early in the pandemic, they were often put in dangerous situations. According to internal emails, air marshals were told over the summer to ignore quarantine travel restrictions imposed at various times by states like Texas, Florida and New York.
Two air marshals based in different cities told Yahoo News that over the summer they’d both been put on missions — assigned flights — while they were waiting for their test to come back or after failed attempts to get tested. In both instances, the air marshals met up with colleagues in different cities, spending extended amounts of time with those teams, who later tested positive and then infected others in their hometowns.
“I was a superspreader, it pains me to say, but that’s what I was,” one air marshal who became infected with COVID-19 told Yahoo News.
Over the past six months, COVID-19 infections hit air marshals in Chicago; Washington, D.C.; Boston; Orlando; Seattle; Atlanta; Newark, N.J.; Detroit; Miami; and Minneapolis, among others, according to internal agency emails.
For some air marshals, the irony of the pandemic is that they are often flying on near-empty flights that pose little terrorist threat.
“Air marshals are mostly retired military, law enforcement. We’re tough and we want to fly and will, and have and want to — when there is a threat, when it’s based on intelligence,” said one air marshal who requested anonymity because of the agency’s history of retaliation against those who speak with the press.
“Now we’re flying bullshit flights,” the air marshal said, “and putting ourselves and our families at risk for no reason.”
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