Before You Enter the Federal Air Marshals Exhibit, Buckle Up!

Publication: Focus FAA Website
Project: FAA: FAM Custom Fuselage Exhibit

 The booth was designed to be easily disassembled for cross-country transport.

The booth was designed to be easily disassembled for cross-country transport.

Undergoing turbulence on the ground isn't nearly as unsettling as enduring it in the air. Indeed, when the earth-bound experience involves flat-screen plasma TVs and massage chairs, people stand in line for it.

The Federal Air Marshal exhibit, with its interactive touch-screen features and patriotic soundtrack (not to mention those massage chairs), offers a 20-minute lesson about the Transportation Security Administration's law enforcement agency. Created by members of the FAA and the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) at the William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, NJ, the exhibit has toured the country since last October, attracting crowds at each stop.

Air marshal and project manager David Adams said the production team's goal was to create an interactive display that would grab — and keep — people's attention. The result is a scenario that resembles a souped-up version of the first-class section of a commercial airliner, complete with cushy recliners, drink holders, and individual TV screens.

The old FAMS display was out-of-date, said FAA exhibit designer and creator Michael Roames at the Tech Center. The typical brochures, posters, and foldout tables at recruiting shows were being overlooked, so FAM administrators were looking for a booth design that would draw more attention.

 The original sketch by Michael Roames done at the planning meeting. He said it was the only time in his career that he was given full discretion to follow his creative impulses.

The original sketch by Michael Roames done at the planning meeting. He said it was the only time in his career that he was given full discretion to follow his creative impulses.

“We can't buy those fancy trinkets to hand out to people, so we needed something else to attract people to the booth,” Roames said. “With this, we don't have to give people anything. They want to come over and sit down to see what it's all about.”

Roames and his team might have done their job too well, if such a thing is possible. Visitors often line up 30 minutes before show time to make sure they get a turn.

“The joke is that the only thing we didn’t design into it is a break for the people who are working the booth,” he said. “It kind of worked backward from what we thought it would — it’s done much better than expected.”

The tunes and sound effects are also hard to beat. Music by Lee Greenwood, best known for “God Bless the USA,” plays in the background while images of 9/11 and other events are broadcast. On the individual screens, viewers can choose among three- to four-minute segments of the history of the FAMS, the training of service members, and instructions on how to apply to the agency. Voiceover narration and sounds of aircraft are piped through headphones.

“When the sounds of jets taking off come on, people often look around and think a plane is landing,” Adams said.

The creators hope the exhibit functions both as an effective recruiting tool and as a means of increasing the public’s awareness of what air marshals do. The core message Adams hopes visitors take away from the experience is the professionalism of the agency. The message might be working — he claims several participants have already asked where they can sign up.

“We’ve had people apply, and people who asked where we built the exhibit,” Adams said. “Other agencies have since contacted the FAA to build something similar.”

 Michael Roames of the FAA's Advanced Imaging Division.

Michael Roames of the FAA's Advanced Imaging Division.

Since its debut at the International Association of Chiefs of Police annual convention in Boston last October, the display has been set up at three other locations, including Andrews Air Force Base and the recent 31st Annual Conference of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives in Fort Lauderdale. Its standing touring schedule has no expiration date. The exhibit’s software was designed to be updated at any time.

“We can change the content whenever we want, before a show or even during a show,” Roames said.

For those who might balk at the luxury of massage chairs in a federal display, keep in mind the alternative – actual airline chairs. At about $600 a seat, the massage recliners are a bargain compared to the $2,500 real thing. Besides, the vibrations make the experience a little more realistic.

“We call them ‘turbulence seats,’” Adams said.  

For more news, features and employee opinion, access Focus FAA.