Also Available at MSNBC.com
When safety is more important than one person's comfort
Imagine my surprise when the ticket agent told me that I did not have a first class seat.
"What?" I sputtered. "But I confirmed that seat just an hour ago!"
On this particular occasion, comfort was foremost in my mind. Just a day earlier I had flown 8,000 miles home from Vietnam, and now I was jumping on a plane for another 6,500 miles to the South of France. When you're traveling more than halfway around the world in less than 24 hours, comfort seems like a big deal.
But the agent would not be moved. Never mind that I was tired. Never mind that I had booked the ticket long in advance. Never mind that I am a member of this airline's million-miler club several times over. On this flight, Seat 1B - a seat that over the years I have come to think of as "my" seat - would be occupied by someone else.
I wasn't giving it up without an explanation. Drawing on my years in sales and sales training, I probed and questioned representatives from the airline until I discovered what had happened to my seat. In time, the truth came out. Seat 1B had been commandeered by a federal air marshal. I'd been bumped off the plane and onto another flight in the name of national security.
Perhaps I should have swelled with patriotic pride but, no, I was incensed.
"How dare they?" I thought. "I'm a paying customer! Along comes this cowboy at the last minute, and he gets to take my seat on whim? No way!"
I took my high dudgeon to anyone who would listen. First I spoke with as many gate agents, ticket agents and flight crew members as would hear me out. I quickly learned that bumps like mine are not uncommon, and while they cause trouble for the airlines, the gate agents can hardly refuse a federal request. But the more I talked to people, the more I realized my first take on the situation was mistaken. In fact, after talking to agents in charge of the Federal Air Marshal program, I have concluded that the program is responsible and well thought out.
Of course, the Department of Homeland Security cannot disclose the particulars of the program, so you won't learn anything here about what flights the marshals fly, what seats they occupy or what their tactics are. But I can tell you that my situation - being yanked from first class on less than one hour's notice on a seemingly peaceful Sunday morning - was an anomaly. Most assignments are scheduled with much more advance notice. But, as one official said, "We consistently have to balance the need for security and passengers' comfort."
What I didn't know about the program is that it protects U.S. citizens from curb to cabin and back again. In fact, marshals are on duty from the moment they leave their homes. They are on guard on their approach to the airport, in the airport's parking lot, on the shuttle bus to the terminal, in the boarding area, on the plane and in the baggage claim area.
The program also comprises a cadre of highly trained Canine Explosive Detection Dogs; the Federal Flight Deck Officer Program, which allows highly trained pilots to carry a weapon in the cockpit; and the Crew Member Self Defense Program, which teaches flight attendants the same defensive skills that the air marshals learn (Watch out! That flight attendant serving you a drink could very well take you out!).
In short, the Federal Air Marshal program has built a multilayered approach to protecting the safety of air travelers. Though much of the program is cloaked in secrecy, and it can occasionally inconvenience passengers, it seems to this frequent traveler that the program is serving the interests of the U.S. traveling public well.
Sure, it's tempting to get mad when you lose that coveted first class seat. But save the hissy fit. In the end, arriving safely is all that matters.