In the wake of September 11, President GW Bush announced on September 20, 2001 a new department in the Department of Homeland Security for a major overhaul of aviation security to dramatically expand the number of air marshalls on domestic flights. Within one month, the newly created Transportation Security Administration began to hire, train, and deploy 600 Air Marshalls (referred to as FAMs). Thousands more FAMs have been hired since that time. The air marshal services was started in 1961 by President Kennedy to protect against hijackings of commercial flight. TSA's FAM budget is $1B annually which is approximately 10% of the TSA budget.
For applicants, they apply for a TSA position with a goal of being a FAM. Applicants are then given access to a candidate dashboard or app in the early stages and have an HR hotline to call with questions. Candidates who make it to the panel interview can expect a 1 in 4 chance of an offer. Successful applicants typically have a law enforcement or military background with criminal justice or similar degree, a mindset which doesn't fixate on the hours or worries about being away from home, and one who will not end up hating the job once they realize it is boring and has no glamour.
New recruits who make it through vetting to the training have major challenges. They are expected to be in the top percentage of shooters and to be agile since with no back up what's taught to them on paper doesn't necessarily apply at 30,000 feet in they sky where there are height restrictions and crowded seats. The FAMs are taught to always search for suspicious behavior such as whether someone is not sleeping, eating their meal or how long they've been out of their seat. FAMs are expected to be vigilant and adaptable because they have an adversary which continues to make aviation a top terror target and may be using non-metallic improvised explosive devices.
Vigilance is of utmost importance in a job involving the security of others. Viewing a laptop/tablet or listening to music in the course of security duties could seriously impair one from staying on point and or noticing something out of the ordinary – though policy allows for it for FAMs since they are often aboard an 8 hour flight and prohibited from sleeping.
On April 6, 2017, a passenger found a loaded weapon in an aircraft bathroom. The flight was international flight Delta 221 from Manchester to JFK International. An air marshall had left her loaded service weapon in the bathroom where the passenger found it and then promptly gave it to flight crew who returned it to the air marshall. The NY Times has reported that the air marshall in question was a new employee and assigned to a flight a few days later. A loaded weapon unattended constitutes a signficiant security breach which would typically warrant an investigation and possible disciplinary action. Often, air marshals are forced to resign or are fired for minor transgressions.