When you board a commercial flight, there’s a chance the person seated next you is an undercover air marshal.
The undercover federal agents, who work in teams and number in the thousands, pose as ordinary passengers but are trained to respond to the worst-case scenarios on an aircraft, as “Power Players” saw first-hand during a visit to Federal Air Marshal’s training center on the East Coast.
One of the most emphasized aspects of their training is how to respond to a terrorist assault on board a plane. In one role-playing scenario we witnessed, a terrorist pulled a knife on a flight attendant while a second terrorist began attacking passengers. The two designated air marshals in-training sprang into action, opened fire on the terrorists and neutralized the threat.
“It's very challenging in in terms of movement,” Federal Air Marshal Instructor Randy Parkes said of training to operate on a plane. “We do a lot of training in the simulators in the aircraft where our people get used to moving in and out of seats, getting up and down aisles. They become familiar in that environment that is their working environment, a linear tube where they’re going to spend most of their time.”
In preparing air marshals for a situation in which they may need to pull their gun to neutralize a terrorist on a plane full of innocent passengers, there’s an emphasis on accuracy.
“They get a lot of hours on the range,” Parkes said. “They're doing a lot of the shooting out of the seats, moving from the seats, standing from the seats. So they become familiar with not only doing that but having the seats in front of them.”
In addition to the threat of terrorists, air marshals also assess the dilemma of when to intervene with unruly passengers . There was a case recently in which air marshals on board a Miami-to-Paris flight broke their covers to restrain a man who fought with another passenger for trying to recline the seat in front of him.
For situations like these, Parkes said, air marshals have to decide on a case-by-case basis whether the situation warrants blowing their cover.
“The flight crews are very well trained at handling a variety of … incidents,” Parkes said. “If something were to go beyond their scope then … the air marshals are going to assess it and they are going to look at the problem and figure out the best way to solve that problem. And that could be by again enlisting the assistance of the flight crew.”
And while air marshals are known primarily as protectors in the sky, they are also equipped to respond to threats on the ground as part of VIPR (Visual Intermodal Prevention and Response) teams. The federal TSA teams coordinate with state and local law enforcement to assist in efforts to protect transportation hubs ranging from subway lines to highways.
Chris Trujillo, the police chief of New Jersey Transit, said the air marshals’ training in behavioral and observational awareness has enhanced his police force’s ability to root out threats.
“What we do on a weekly basis at New Jersey Transit is that we may set up a baggage inspection and the marshals will help us by being in street clothing, plain clothes and they'll watch that, they'll counter-survey that baggage inspection for us,” Trujillo said. “I'm able to reach out, get additional assets and use them in a way that I see that I need to utilize them.”
The challenge for the air marshals going forward, Parkes said, is that the threats posed by terrorists are ever-evolving – and as a result, the marshals must constantly strive to stay ahead in their training.
"Having trained a lot of the air marshals that are out there now, my concern is that I know the terrorists are not going to stop trying to find vulnerabilities,” Parkes said. “They're going to continue to try to find vulnerabilities and we are going to continue to train to stop those."
To experience air marshal training for yourself, check out this episode of “Power Players.”
ABC News’ Richard Coolidge and Gary Westphalen contributed to this episode.