The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has changed the rules and as of April 25 will allow small blades and sports implements such as golf clubs and lacrosse sticks to be carried on board by airline passengers. The rules would allow passengers to carry knives with blades shorter than 2.36 inches and narrower than half an inch, as long as they don’t have lockable blades. The existing rules prohibit most sharp objects, with the exception of scissors that are four or fewer inches in length, and also sports equipment. The TSA wants the rule change to harmonize U.S. security practices with those of other countries, which would make security screening more efficient. I’m not so sure about that.
Here is the TSA’s official language: “This is part of an overall risk-based security approach, which allows transportation security officers to better focus their efforts on finding higher-threat items such as explosives. This decision aligns the TSA more closely with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards.”
The TSA’s move has generated spasms from incredulous critics wondering if the agency has lost its mind, including the Flight Attendants Union Coalition and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). According to Markey, in a statement sent to the media, “The attacks on September 11, 2001 demonstrated that in the confined environment of an airplane, even a small blade in the hands of a terrorist can lead to disaster.”
According to Sara Nelson, Association of Flight Attendants international v-p and a United Airlines flight attendant, “The Association of Flight Attendants has been a key advocate for aviation security and a strong proponent of a risk-based approach to airport screening. That’s why we strongly oppose the TSA rule change that threatens to allow knives on the aircraft.”
There is a pragmatic reason why this rule change is not going to make travel more efficient, and it has nothing to do with harmonizing security practices with other ICAO-member countries. The rule change attempts to precisely define something that is going to cause TSA Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) countless headaches. Instead of just telling people—simply—don’t bring knives, now thousands of passengers are going to be testing TSOs’ patience by trying to carry knives and seeing which ones are acceptable and which ones are rejected. This is going to cause many additional hours of digging through carry-on bags, opening and measuring blades, checking for blade-locking mechanisms and lots of TSA head-scratching. This is supposed to speed up the security lines? I don’t think so.
And the line about aligning more closely with ICAO standards? That doesn’t make any sense. If the U.S. security apparatus wants to align with ICAO standards, then, as one clever commenter put it on the TSA’s blog site: “…then why are we still removing shoes and submitting to electronic strip searches?” Neither of these practices is ICAO-standard.
But let’s put aside all the rhetoric for a moment. Sara Nelson says that the flight attendants are strong proponents of risk-based approaches to airport screening. And the TSA says that this rule change is part of a risk-based approach to security. Who is right?
If indeed the TSA has done a rigorous study—this I doubt—of the risks, then maybe this rule change makes sense. But the flight attendants worry that more knives on board will add risk.
The TSA is somewhat right, in judging that allowing passengers to carry more previously prohibited items won’t add much risk, but the TSA is wrong that this will make screening more efficient.
While the flight attendants’ position is understandable—after all, they are the heroic front line in dealing with passengers—Rep. Ed Markey is simply wrong, period. He says that the 9/11 attacks “demonstrated that in the confined environment of an airplane, even a small blade in the hands of a terrorist can lead to disaster.” This is such an obviously illogical statement. A determined terrorist in the confined environment of an airplane is the problem, not the stuff that people carry on board. Does Markey seriously think that the 9/11 attacks couldn’t have been carried out had the terrorists’ box cutters been confiscated? Would it not be possible to stab someone in, say, the neck with a metal ballpoint pen? Or hit them over the head with a laptop computer? Strangle them, break their necks?
I see so many “dangerous” implements on so many flights—metal forks and knives with my meal!—that it boggles my mind to think that anyone supposes that we’re safe just because we can’t carry a Swiss Army knife on an airplane. I, for one, would feel far safer if I could carry a knife, just in case. Because I know the truth of the matter: if there is an attack, I and other passengers and flight attendants will be called on to do something. And I’d prefer to have a weapon, even a 2.36-inch long pocket knife or, better yet, a golf club, preferably a metal-shafted 7-iron, because for darn sure I am not going to sit still while some crazy fanatic tries to hijack and or blow up our airplane.