JPATS MD-83 (N965AS) at Sunset in Arizona

JPATS MD-83 (N965AS) at Sunset in Arizona

If you have been following the Colton Harris-Moore saga recently, you know he was caught and flown via “Con Air” from Miami to Seattle. Even though he had stolen some planes to fly himself and had a huge love for aviation, this was his first flight on an airliner. Seeing the photo of the MD-80 taking him across country, it made me wonder what the real “Con Air” is like versus seeing it in movies and I decided to check it out.

It is much different than what’s portrayed in the movie Con Air or the flight sequence on US Marshals. Due to FAA regulations, passengers cannot be locked into their seats or in cages. However, this doesn’t mean they get a nice ride. Inmates have their legs and hands locked together and depending on the situation, could be wearing a full face mask. There is no meal service and having to use the restroom means you get escorted by a few guards.

In 1995 the air fleets of the Immigration and Naturalization Services (now known as ICE) and the US Marshals were combined under the new name Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System (JPATS). The JPATS transports criminals all over the country for a court appearance or to be transferred to a new facility. They also conduct deportation flights, taking deportable illegal aliens to their home country. In 2009 JPATS moved 345,862 prisoners and almost 200,000 were transported via air.

A prisoner is not told of his flight until the last possible minute and schedules are kept secret. This limits someone’s ability to mess with the flight and the passenger’s ability to formulate an escape plan. Guards are not able to carry guns or even mace. They are trained in proper security procedures to make sure the flight gets to its destination and keep the criminals properly in their seats.

Most of the prisoners flying JPATS are federal detainees and illegal aliens moving between US Marshal offices, Federal Bureau of Prisons correctional facilities and international destinations for the removal of deportable aliens.  But JPATS also offers to move military, state and local prisoners through cooperative agreements for a cost. In 2005, the cost for an out side agency to fly a prisoner one way was about $1150.00 and they don’t even get peanuts. But they do get security and possibly temporary housing until being picked up at their destination if needed.

I had a hard time trying to track down the current JPATS fleet, but found luck when speaking with Scott A. Wilhelm Cheif of Flight Operations for JPATS. He told me, “We (JPATS) currently operate the following owned/leased aircraft:  6 MD-83, 2 Hawker 800, 1 Saab 2000 and 1 BE-99.” The smaller aircraft will be used for the best of the best criminals who are deemed too dangerous to fly with the general population.

So if you think your next flight is like being in a cattle car, you might want to think about the fine folks flying on a JPATS flight. They might be free for the passengers, but they won’t have nearly as much fun at their destination.

Additional Information:
* Photo of chartered Champion Air Boeing 727 to transport convicts seen at KPAE
* Photos of some of the aircraft used (scroll down)
* Story how JPSATS is helpful via US Marshal’s website
* Journalist takes a JPSATS flight via the Guardian

Thanks Dorothy!

Image by: Joe Stremph

EDITOR-IN-CHIEF & FOUNDER - SEATTLE, WA. David has written, consulted, and presented on multiple topics relating to airlines and travel since 2008. He has been quoted and written for a number of news organizations, including BBC, CNN, NBC News, Bloomberg, and others. He is passionate about sharing the complexities, the benefits, and the fun stuff of the airline business. Email me:
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Although it is more humane then I expected, it still hard to swallow the cost per inmate. Also, I thought that immigrants that where transported were simply left at a US border town and then driven to a nearby Mexican Border town. I mean, they don’t have to deal with CUSTOMS!!! That would be so nice!

Transporting prisoners this way is actually quite a bit more cost effective. Think about the Harris-Moore situation. Sending two officers from Seattle to Miami to escort the prisoner would have cost a lot more.

It also isn’t very viable to fly a criminal on normal air transportation, because again you need at least two officers to escort them and who wants to fly with someone with handcuffs on?


Chris J

I’ve been on the plane in that picture!! Seat 2F — not as a prisoner, but as a passenger from Seattle to Oakland back in 2005. Something tells me that the service isn’t the same as when it was part of the Alaska Airlines fleet. 🙂

Wait a second, you remember the exact plane and seat you flew on 5 years ago?!



I keep all my flights and N-numbers in an online database. I can look it up and tell you that a year ago tomorrow, I flew on N937CA and N800AY. Also much thanks to

Chris J

You don’t keep a flight log? I keep my flights and N-numbers, (and G-, C-, VH-, D, and PH- numbers as well). There are two good online databases for that. Both generate cool maps.


Thanks, David. What a great story, you really answered all my questions!! So our Feds have quite a fleet of planes. And you are right, this is probably the most cost effective way to accomplish these transfers.

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I saw a 737 recently at LAS that I wondered if it was one of these.
Solid white, no markings except an N number … N280DP, I think. It was pretty far away.
I searched the FAA N-Number database and didn’t find it, BUT it might not be listed.
Anyone have an idea?

Hey Ed,

Actually another blogger Flying With Fish just talked about this recently. Take a look:


Dag nabbit good stuff you wihppersnaperps!

Yep, that’s what I saw.



Marlene B

My son emailed me that the only way they can legally transport prisoners shackled,, under FAA regulations, is to classify them as “produce”. To your knowledge is this correct? If so it is a travesty.

terry gersdorf

your son is partially correct he’s referring to commercial airlines (ankles) must be free but are required to be handcuffed in front.
conair flights do not follow the same rules because there under a different certicate.


I flew con air from new jersey to Oklahoma most of what is posted is true but we did get a nitro grain bar and a bag of water

Did you “get” to fly as a passenger? Or as crew?

And a bag of water?


Jen Anderson

I have personally flew con air however it was the most horrifying exp I have ever had in my life it started out me living in south carolina wrote a bad check in South Dakota they extradited me for this 3700 dollar check for a car that I wrote I have never flown on a plane in my life I had no intention of ever flying period. I was pale white when I got off the plane. I got stuck in Oklahoma city transfer center overnight and heard planes all night long I guess thats the big airport there. The us marshalls never tell you the time the nurse on flight gave me a xanax to calm my nerves it still did nothing for me the one us marshall lady was so sweet she let me know when the plane was decending my making hand movements at me wich they are not supposed to do but she knew I was not some major risk criminal trying to plot anything she saw how scared I was and her heart really went out to me. They did feed us from Atlanta GA to Oklahoma city a bagged lunch it was blonga sandwiches chips and a bottle of water and a gronola bar. The lady sitting next to me was sweet and held my hand we must have stopped at a dozzen airports looked like a few of them were military bases bus loads like grey hound type busses would be waiting at the different airports for inmates getting on and getting off hillicopters would fly around with guns securing the area. The plane its self was kinda small they did let me go to the bathroom escorted but stand outside the door. Women sit infront of the plane men sit in the back I remeber walking past the men going to the bathroom and they all stared at me and smiled and licked their lips LOL because they aint had a woman in God knows how long.. and they made comments they saw me crying they kept saying I was gonna be ok I was the only one that seemed to be so freaked out but the us marshalls never told the guys to shut up we were allowed to talk on the plane it was actually alot of talking some guys sang people talked and laughed you are handcuffed and shackled with a pad lock I think it was 3 of them.By the time I got to my destination I think I was on the plane for like guessing 6 hours going all over the place I remeber seeing a cop car from IL to pick up some inmates they call your name at your destination on a sheet of paper like a roster and then they call your name again after those people get off so they know that the people who are supposed to get off at the right place do. Kinda like a roll call It was the most craziest exp I have ever done. Matter of fact the us marshalls let me litterally kiss the ground when I arrived in south dakota and they said I have now earned my Con Air wings hahhaha what a learning experience that was needless to say I got there and the charges were dropped and I went on to college to be a great person and wonderful member of society and changed my life gave it to God and my life is beautiful today I learned a good lesson…never fly again… period.


Actually the numbers I believe are artificially inflated. I have learned on airline forums that a lot more prisoners then you think are transported on normal flights but they hide the handcuffs from view.

Many times prisoners who are low risk go on a public greyhound bus which they are warned if they don’t make it to their destination it’s considered an escape charge so most make sure they do.

Randall Lorenz

what was the date when the JAPATS flights ended flights in to the Sacramento International Airport (SMF)? Why did they end? What was the date that the JAPATS flight start going into McClellan AFB in Sacramento, California?

Prisoners going on a bus by themselves? Really?

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