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"Con-Air" in 1/6 San Diego Union Tribune [news article]

From: (Glenn Campbell, Las Vegas)
Date: Tue, 7 Jan 1997 10:37:42 -0800
Subject: "Con-Air" in 1/6 San Diego Union Tribune [news article]

A correspondent passed this 1/6 article on to us. He adds:

"The article in the hard-copy paper has a couple of pictures to go with the
story (no pix on-line).  One picture shows the shoulder patch on the aircrew
uniforms, another shows prisoners lined up about to board a Convair 580.  The
paint job on the plane looked like INS or maybe US Marshals Service, it was a
green stripe with an eagle forward of the door."

(Password required)

The article is relevant here because of recent discussion of Con-Air flights
using the "Janet" company name.


You won't need a reservation on this airline -- no matter how many travelers
flood the airport.

Don't worry about traffic or parking. Shuttles are provided. And the price is
right -- you fly for free.

But think carefully before you step aboard. This is ConAir, and all the
passengers are federal prisoners.

"We don't serve mixed drinks," said Thomas Little, chief of air operations for
the program, officially titled the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation
System, or J-Pats.

Call it ConAir and Little knows what you mean. It's the name the air transport
system has picked up inside the U.S. Marshals Service, which flies a fleet of
13 airplanes on regular routes across the country every day.

During the past year, the prisoner airline spent $24 million moving more than
100,000 federal inmates -- including 12,000 from San Diego -- to and from
trials, prisons and medical centers nationwide.

The inmates fly mostly on 727s and DC-9s. But the airline, which has merged with
the air wing of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, also operates
Convair 580s, a Lear jet and a number of smaller aircraft.

Among the most infamous of its recent travelers were Unabomber suspect Theodore
Kaczynski and the men accused in the bombing of the Oklahoma City
federal building, Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh.

Nichols and McVeigh were transported in the dead of night in an operation much
akin to a clandestine military operation, Little said. He did not want to go
into details but mentioned that a decoy plane was among the ploys used to guard
against possible attempts by supporters to free the suspects.

Federal officials have always been circumspect about the fine points of prisoner
movement. But ConAir soon could gain a higher public profile with the
planned release in June of a movie by the same name.

In the Disney film, Nicolas Cage plays a hapless prisoner who wanders into a
hijack plot aboard a Marshals Service plane carrying a group of high-security

The Hollywood marshals rough up some of the prisoners, and the plane crashes,
leaving the real Marshals Service frowning on the silver screen's invention,
said Kristine Marcy, a top official in charge of detentions.

"We don't beat up our prisoners, and our planes certainly don't crash," Marcy
said on a recent trip to San Diego, where she was trying to find more jail space
for federal prisoners.

The space problem here is acute because of the high number of border arrests.
So, San Diego is a regular stop on ConAir's West Coast air route, with 12
flights per week scheduled into Lindbergh Field.

Prisoners -- mostly people being held for entering the country with false
documents -- are flown from San Diego to Las Vegas, where they are housed in the
city jail. They are flown back a few days later for deportation hearings.

Without the air transportation system, Operation Gatekeeper, the federal border
crackdown, would not have been possible, said Mark Reed, San Diego's
district director for the INS.

Before ConAir was called in last July, Reed said, the INS was spending hours on
the road busing hundreds of prisoners to Las Vegas, the closest jail space

Kim Porter, who coordinates INS air transportation in San Diego, estimated that
12,000 inmates have flown from here to Las Vegas and back aboard
federal planes.

"If the planes stopped flying for just one day, a monkey wrench would be thrown
into the whole system," Porter said.

Because of the San Diego jail space problem, there was no holiday break here for
ConAir. While flights in other parts of the country were cut back during
the Christmas season, San Diego continued its rigorous schedule of two flights
every weekday and one each Saturday and Sunday.

Marcy said the air transportation system inspires a high level of commitment in
its personnel.

"People are always willing to be on standby or to work overtime," she said,
noting that the planes are not always used for prisoner transport.

After a hurricane flattened parts of the Virgin Islands last year, the prisoner
transportation system flew in some of the first reinforcements to help establish
law and order, she said.

After the Oklahoma City bombing, the airline flew evidence to the FBI crime
laboratory in Washington, D.C., she said.

With planes crisscrossing the country, traveling through multiple time zones and
even venturing around the globe, scheduling and tracking have gone high-tech.
It's all accomplished from a scheduling center in Kansas City, Mo., referred to
as the "travel agency" for ConAir. It handles up to 500 electronic requests for
flights each day, federal officials say.

Flight tracking begins an hour before the first plane takes off. Throughout the
day, employees monitor the movements of every plane until the last craft is
safely on the ground.

On board, a crew of deputy U.S. marshals, aviation enforcement officers and
contract guards keeps order in the rear of the plane. Passengers are loaded
under high security at a remote area of an airport. Seat assignments are not

Inside, the planes have been slightly rearranged from their previous commercial
seating to allow guards a better view of the entire plane, officials say. The
special seating tends to allow for more leg room -- but only for the guards,
they add.

The planes fly out of a hub in Oklahoma City, the center of the country, making
large loops east and west, dropping off and picking up passengers as they
land at 40 major cities.

The planes also loop along separate West Coast and East Coast circuits.

But why is it necessary to move an average of 400 prisoners every day?

Bed space is the driving factor," said Little, a former INS pilot who
coordinates the day-to-day operations of the merged airline.

He said jail cells, which generally are rented by the Marshals Service to hold
federal prisoners until they are sentenced to a long-term facility, can cost up
to $100 a night on the East Coast, while in Texas or Louisiana the cost of a
cell might run as low as $35 a night.

"You make up the cost of moving a prisoner pretty quickly at that rate," Little

He said other reasons for moving prisoners include the need to separate gang
members or suspects testifying against each other.

ConAir also moves inmates for the federal Bureau of Prisons, which may want to
transfer someone from a high-to low-security facility.

Higher-security prison space is most expensive, Little explained, so prison
authorities like to quickly move people who do not need the extra supervision.

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