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Changes in Airport Routine for Marshals Sought

Homeland chief Ridge tells Senate panel that the profile of security staff should be lowered.

June 10, 2004|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, expressing concern that air marshals were too easy to spot, said Wednesday that his department would change the way marshals moved through airports and boarded flights.

"It's pretty clear that it's not in anybody's interest that we identify for all potential passengers who the federal air marshals are," Ridge told the Senate Judiciary Committee at a hearing on his department's performance. "We're looking at a systemwide change."

Air marshals have complained about airport procedures that sometimes require them to board ahead of disabled passengers and families with young children, often in full view of other travelers. At many airports, they cannot discreetly bypass security checkpoints. Instead, they must enter through the exit lanes used by arriving passengers and display their identification in public.

Marshals also are required to wear a suit and tie or sport coat, collared shirt, dress slacks and dress shoes. The Federal Air Marshal Service says the dress code is a mark of professionalism, but marshals say it makes them stand out among casually dressed travelers.

Ridge said his concerns centered on the airport procedures, not the dress code.

The department, he said, has begun "a full-scale review of how we can effect ... the entrance of the federal air marshals on to these aircraft. We don't want to do it in a way that indicates who they are."

Changing the boarding procedures may sound simple, but it will probably involve negotiations with local airport authorities, airlines and pilots.

In interviews, marshals have said they would like to bypass ticket counters, security checkpoints and gate agents and proceed directly to their flights. That might require that airlines designate special security coordinators to escort them.

"I don't believe the problem has yet been rectified," said Sen. Herbert Kohl (D-Wis.). "It doesn't make sense to have federal air marshals known to the public. It defeats the purpose, doesn't it?"

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