The truth about the TSA’s pointless knife fight

By | March 17th, 2013

The Transportation Security Administration’s surprise announcement that it will allow small knives and previously banned sporting equipment on planes next month was met with concern and confusion from airline passengers and drew strong criticism from airline crew members and law enforcement representatives.

But mostly, it left the average air traveler wondering: Will my next flight be less safe?

This month, the TSA announced that starting April 25, it will allow passengers to bring small knives with non-locking blades shorter than 2.36 inches and less than half an inch in width, small novelty bats, ski poles, hockey and lacrosse sticks, billiard cues and up to two golf clubs onto a plane. The move is intended to allow security screeners to “better focus their efforts on finding higher threat items such as explosives,” according to the agency.

But an explosion is what the agency got.

The loudest came from the Flight Attendants Union Coalition, which represents nearly 90,000 airline crew members. Shortly after the announcement, it launched an online petition to persuade the TSA to reverse course.

“It’s obvious that knives pose a threat,” Veda Shook, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, told me. “That’s why pocketknives have been banned on U.S. commercial aircraft for more than a decade, just as they are in government buildings such as the Capitol and courthouses.”

The new policy also came under fire from the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association and from at least one passenger group. Paul Hudson, the executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, which advocates for air travelers, suggested that more knives on board could make it easier to pull off another terrorist attack. “Terrorists now can bring on board knives as sharp as the then-permitted box cutters used by the 9/11 hijackers,” he said.

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Frequent air travelers such as Ron Goltsch, an engineer from West Caldwell, N.J., say that they were confounded by the TSA’s actions, which are just the latest in a series of decisions that have left passengers scratching their heads.

“Let me see if I understand this,” he said. “A knife is fine to bring on board. But that four-ounce bottle of shampoo brands you as a possible terrorist? Sure, the TSA rules make sense — in bizarro world.”

True, the TSA’s “3-1-1” rule for carry-ons, which limits the total liquid volume each traveler can bring on a plane to one quart-size bag filled with containers of 3.4 ounces or less, remains in effect. Those restrictions were added after authorities in Europe claimed to have foiled a terrorist plot to blow up a transatlantic flight with liquid explosives in 2006.

“It would be more logical to do away with the size restriction on liquids,” says Dennis Lewis, a frequent traveler based in Orange Park, Fla. He says that knives — even small ones — could be used for nefarious purposes. “I’m still haunted by the reports that flight attendants had their throats cut during the 9/11 hijackings. Sure, a pocketknife is small, but you get four would-be hijackers who manage to get on the same flight with pocketknives, and they work together to overpower the flight attendants.”

Just as the debate started to heat up, drawing in airline executives and legislators, the New York Post published an interview with a former TSA screener in Newark, who called the knife fight “overblown.”

“Most of the public doesn’t realize it,” the ex-screener said, “but you are already allowed to bring scissors, screwdrivers, tweezers, knitting needles and any number of sharp instruments on board.”

I asked Shook about the other sharp objects currently allowed on board, specifically the metal knives used for first-class meals. Couldn’t they be used to take over an aircraft? “A butter knife with a dull, serrated, rounded edge in no way compares to a sharpened, pointed knife,” she said.

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On its face, the decision to allow knives and sporting equipment on board looks dangerous — even foolish — until you realize that other potentially dangerous objects have been permitted on commercial aircraft for years. Knives such as the ones the TSA will allow next month routinely pass through the security screening process, according to passengers and agency insiders.

Ann Wolfer, who works for the Army and is based in Wilmington, Del., says that she recently left her deployment knife from Iraq, which has a serrated 3½-inch blade, in her carry-on bag by accident. “It made it through airport security at least a dozen different times at four different airports,” she remembers. “I can’t believe it was missed. It had to have been ignored. I’m not saying that this knife should be allowed through security. My point is more that they’ve been looking past this stuff, I believe, for years.”

In dozens of interviews conducted after the TSA’s decision was announced, the most common reaction wasn’t apprehension, but resignation. If nothing else, the agency’s efforts to incorporate what it calls “random and unpredictable” security measures throughout the airport have finally succeeded. Virtually nothing the agency does makes sense anymore, say many passengers.

The agency already exempts large groups of air travelers, including active-duty military, crew members, dignitaries and elite-level frequent fliers, from its regular screening process, allowing them to bypass the dreaded full-body scanners and to leave their shoes on.

So will your next flight be a little more dangerous? Almost certainly not.

It seems that some passengers gave up hope that the screening process would make any sense a long time ago. Now their wishes are a little more modest.

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“I dream of the day when I can bring a bottle of wine or a latte through security and onto the flight,” says Scott McMurren, a guidebook publisher based in Anchorage. “That’s no problem for TSA Administrator John Pistole, of course. He flies in his own plane.”

Should the TSA allow small knives on board?

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Note: I wanted to say a few words about what is — and isn’t — acceptable in the comments, since stories about the TSA tend to draw some of the most passionate responses.

We have three simple rules: 1) No personal attacks; 2) Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; and 3) Be nice to your host and moderators.

These rules have been articulated in my FAQ for a while, so most of you are familiar with them. We also understand the reason for them. We want to keep the discussion civil and productive.

But let me give you a few examples of what I mean:

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Reason: Violates “do unto others” rule.

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Reason: It’s not nice to your host.

  • Dan

    Virtually any object can be a weapon in the right hands. The idea that terrorists with knifes could “overpower” the flight attendants is a non sequitur. The last I heard, flight attendants are not trained in hand to hand combat. The real threat to terrorists on airlines comes from their belief that passengers will now take affirmative action to defend the aircraft. That belief, and the increase in the security of the cockpit door, are the most important factors in increased airline security since 911.

  • TiaMa

    Agreed. After my state passed a concealed carry law, the college where I work put up signs stating weapons were prohibited with illustrations of a fire arm and a knife. My initial impression was that anything could be used as a “weapon” – from pepper spray to a pen or a pencil in capable hands. It’s like herding cats.

  • With all due respect to those who oppose bringing small knives aboard, it is important to remember that a clever criminal can fashion pretty much anything into a makeshift weapon, which can do just as much damage as a knife. A few weeks ago, a federal prisoner in transport from Florida to Nevada escaped from his U.S. Marshal escorts while they were stopped at a Wal-Mart outside Dallas to take a bathroom break. How did he do it? He had sharpened one of the earpieces of his eyeglasses into a shank, which he then used to stab the guard inside the vehicle. Oh wait, did I just give the TSA the idea to ban eyeglasses from commercial flights???

  • Robert Karpel

    I believe that this means that waiter corkscrews will soon be allowed again. They have been banned because of the 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch blade on it, to cut the foil of the wine bottle.

  • technomage1

    This is interesting because I can see both sides of it. FAs don’t want to be placed in unnecessary danger. It’s not fun to think your life is sacrificable, but theirs is, as well as the lives of passengers on a hijacked aircraft. The flight crew cannot open that cockpit door to a terrorist holding a FA hostage (or a child, or me, or anybody).

    On the other hand, small knives can’t be used to open the reinforced cockpit doors. A small amount of liquid acid or explosive might be able to. So I understand why those are still banned from that viewpoint.

    Could this signal the beginning of a new, more threat based, responsive TSA? I’m cautiously optimistic.

  • Joe Reynolds

    I had a little pair of fold up scissors once and the TSA
    took them. The TSA agent told me they had a sharp point. I bought another pair
    and filed the points off and have been carrying them for the past 8 years.

    One time we went on a
    cruise to take my wife’s cousin who had it on her bucket list. She was on
    Oxygen all the time so her husband drives up to the port with about 12 big
    bottles of oxygen, an oxygen generator and 12 small bottles to put at the table
    with her. Now her husband has a small pocket knife, and I mean small with a blade
    length of 1.5 inches. The security agents take the knife as we go through
    security. Now the cruise ship has all kinds of knives available. Bring a knife sharpener
    and one could have almost a sharp sword.

    I don’t know who makes the rules, but they must have the job
    for the money and have no sense.

    If you let a man on the ship with 24 bombs (oxygen bottles)
    and take away a pocket knife, it is just plain stupid. The TSA just hires
    people that have to perform like idiots. I don’t blame then, I blame the

    A person could take a good knife sharpener with a knife into
    the restroom and sharpen any knife to be a weapon.

    It is not what is getting on the airplane or ship that is important;
    it is WHO is getting on. The TSA needs to concentrate more on who.

  • Alan Gore

    “No knives, but you can bring your toothpaste now” would be a much better rule change than “knives are OK if your inspector is not having a bad day.”

  • Oline Wright

    The fact is there is no way anyone or anything can be made completely safe. Frankly I would rather have our freedoms back and take the risk. The metal detectors maybe made sense when they had a lot of hijackings but even that was a limitation on freedoms but if it were decided by the individual airlines as to what they allow and don’t allow on their planes I would be more inclined to accept that than the TSA rules and government imposed violations of human rights.
    There have been many instances that show there are numerous holes in security. Frankly it is security theatre and bad theatre at that.

  • John Keahey

    Excellent points. But the problem with the “who” is determining the bad “who” from the good “who”. Start collecting info on people and putting it in files, and folks become concerned about their privacy being violated. Start targeting folks who resemble our terrorist stereotypes, and you’re profiling. A difficult problem indeed, and no solution that TSA or its replacement agency could come up with would please the masses. And taking small knives off the banned list? Ridiculous. So on it goes.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    Chris, I think it was a bad choice to use a photo of a still-prohibited knife at the top of this article. When some people think “knives on planes,” they picture a huge hunting knife, ala Crocodile Dundee. The photo in this article reinforces this incorrect view about what will be allowed.

  • cjr001

    It’s TSA; just about every decision they make is laughable.

    Should knives be allowed on planes? No, not really. BUT, they are not the threat that everybody is trying to make them out to be.

    As I said when this was first announced, it’s shameful that the Flight Attendants Union Coalition has chosen this to be their fight, rather than the fact that TSA has been groping us, taking away our liquids, and generally treating us all like potential terrorists.

    Mr. Hudson is also commenting as if living in another bubble of reality. Box cutters, knives, and likely even guns, will not bring down a plane. Those things will not allow you to hijack a plane again.

    What has really changed since 9/11? Securing the cockpit doors, which alone would have prevented 9/11, and passengers who will not sit back and let a hijacking occur.

  • BMG4ME

    They should be becoming more lenient in areas that don’t cause a threat – requiring people to take off hats, shoes coats, jackets, belts, and taking laptops out of bags. The only good thing about allowing people to take knives on the plane is that it shows the TSA is coming around to realizing that most of their measures are ineffective. Unfortunately the measure they chose to withdraw is one of the few that actually make sense to keep.

  • TheEmperorIsStarkers

    The move is intended to allow security screeners to “better focus their efforts on finding higher threat items such as… ” SHAMPOO AND SUNSCREEN … because God forbid we be allowed to carry enough of those onboard to get us through a vacation.

  • Cybrsk8r

    Only a government agency could come up with “non-locking blades shorter than 2.36 inches and less than half an inch in width”.

  • Carchar

    Don’t worry. TSA hasn’t banned 5-inch pointy stiletto heels from the get-go…

  • Susan Richart

    The FAs and all the others, including pilots, complaining about the new “allowables” don’t seem to want to accept how much a pilot can do with a plane to throw any attacker off balance. Yes, a few FAs/unbelted passengers could be injured if the plane went into a steep dive, but it would end an attack quickly.

  • Jolanda Robbins

    So bringing 3.1 ounces of water on board is still banned, but knives are not?

    If they are going to allow knives, they should limit it to people who have a weapons permit, and allow any folding type knife, so the passengers have some kind of defense against make shift weapons, or ones that make it past TSA.

  • ChBot

    I’ve been vocal in the past about badly worded polls. I love the simplicity of this one ! Congrat, Chris

  • ChBot

    Problem is, if the airlines wanted to add to the TSA “forbidden objects” list, they would have to pay for an extra level of screening : will therefore never happen !!!…

  • ChBot

    Probably, but what will we use them for onboard ???

  • ChBot

    “Could this signal the beginning of a new, more threat based, responsive TSA? I’m cautiously optimistic.”

    I wouldn’t be holding my breath …

  • frostysnowman

    You can bring 3.1 ounces of water on board. You just (still) can’t bring it through all those layers of security.

  • johnb78

    It’s worth bearing in mind here that it doesn’t *matter* that you can shiv someone on a flight, whether that’s with a 2″ knife or a shard of smashed duty-free bottle.

    The 9/11 attacks were possible because they exploited preconceptions about hijackers (“they’re happy to kill but don’t want to die”) and lax cockpit security protocols. If someone were to threaten a member of cabin crew today, the cockpit door would stay locked – and would-be hijackers know that too. The method for 9/11 was a one-off; the attack itself made future such attacks impossible. And that’s even *before* you take into account the change in expected passenger response.

    On the other hand, someone who brings a bomb onto a plane is still capable of bringing it down. The new generation of hand luggage scanners are capable of detecting liquid explosives and their precursor chemicals, which is why liquids rules are being progressively relaxed (Australia is planning to remove liquid restrictions on outbound international flights this year, now that all its international airports have the new equipment).

    But in airports without the newer scanning equipment, liquid explosives can present a genuine risk to the integrity of the aircraft. Which is why blades are allowed and liquids are still banned.

  • KaraJones

    So my yogurt was confiscated and my sunblock, too. But a knife is OK. Amazing.

  • Susan Richart

    However, our government is already collecting information on us and putting it in files and violating our privacy. That’s why your name on the ticket has to match your ID, why your birthday has to be entered recorded in a particular way, that’s what Passenger Name Records are all about for international travel.

  • Susan Richart

    Sorry – trying to get accustomed to this new computer.

    Anyway, your government is tracking all of your air travel in order to determine patterns of travel. If that’s not an invasion of privacy, I don’t know what is.

  • betsy514

    I went to the Boston Garden this past Friday for a concert. I bought a bottle of water once inside the venue and was informed they could sell me the water but would have to confiscate the plastic bottlecap. So I can bring knives on a plane but can be trusted with a bottlecap on the ground. hmm…

  • Joe_D_Messina

    This x1000. Just so bizarre that the pointless removal of shoes goes on but legitimate weapons going onboard are now OK. I carry a pocket knife basically everywhere, so this change is beneficial to me, but it just seems so illogical that they’d START with that with rule changes. If I were a flight attendant, I’d be griping, too.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    In Boston Garden’s defense, they tend to ban things that cause problems. And while pocket knives haven’t been a real issue at arenas, those bottlecaps were constantly being used a projectiles. Throwing them down on the floor during basketball and onto the ice during hockey were the biggest issues, though I’m sure with some concerts it was happening, too.

    It’s really annoying to have to worry about spilling when you’d normally just put the cap on and forget about it, but it’s just a case of a few idiots making life harder on everybody else.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    I’ve never understood what with all the sniffer devices and the like they couldn’t determine if those sorts of items were harmless.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    What in this post could possibly warrant a thumbs down? It’s not even opinion, but verified facts.

  • johnb78

    I was surprised too. I think some people are scared of facts.

  • johnb78

    It’s not really bizarre when you think about it. A metal detector is still just a metal detector; an x-ray is an x-ray.

    It’s a lot easier (and causes no delay) for an operator to see a 2″ knife blade and think “that is a 2″ knife blade” and let it through,

    For an operator to work out why the person in front of you in the line is beeping – if he’s got a metal-buckled belt and steel-toecapped boots and has forgotten to take his cellphone and his metal cigarette case out of his jacket – involves a lot more general pain-in-the-ass-ery.

  • KaraJones

    Actually I think there are some lurkers who take a disliking to one thing that a person posts and then they look for that person every day and they down-vote them on anything they say.

  • cahdot

    they touch and grab u all over but now we can have knives makes no sense…It is not what the customers want , what are they (tsa) thinking..? they really need to re-think the groping nonsense if anything

  • TSA Blog Team

    Christopher… Recognizing that you quoted someone else in your blog, we
    felt that you would appreciate knowing that the quote you used toward the end
    of your piece is patently false.

    First, TSA Administrator John Pistole does not “fly in his own plane.” Administrator Pistole has no special checkpoint benefits beyond those available to the general public. He travels on commercial aircraft and not on private ones.

    And, to help you better sort out the facts:

    • There have been no in-flight incidents where a passenger was injured on a U.S. carrier using small scissors or knitting needles since TSA changes Prohibited Items List in 2005

    • There has been only one incident on an international carrier since many in the international community aligned their Prohibited Items List with International Civil Aviation Organization standards allowing all small knives. TSA has restricted those that are designed to be used as a weapon.

    • TSA was established primarily to stop another terrorist attacked using an aircraft and not to police unruly passenger behavior. The residual benefit of TSA’s many layers of security has resulted in the protection of passengers from the occasional onboard passenger outburst.

    Bob Burns
    TSA Blog Team

  • Ann

    Um, no, the shoe removal has absolutely nothing to do with procedures for walking through a metal detector without alerts (99.9+% of all passengers’ shoes would not be steel-toed or anything else that a metal detector would care about). The shoe removal is about x-raying the shoes, and was instituted because of the darn ‘shoe bomber’.

  • Ann

    The limit is 3.4 oz (100 mL) of liquid per container (and all containers fitting in a 1-quart bag), not the often-misstated 3 oz per container. So no, 3.1 oz of water isn’t banned. ;-)

  • naoma

    ONLY ONE QUESTION: Why does anyone need any kind of knife on an airplane? Cut your steak (dream on), clean your fingernails (another fiasco),

  • Mundane Lustrator

    Except for the last sentence, this comment makes sense.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    To cut a stray thread. To open a plastic container. To open a food package. To use at my destination.

  • Curtis

    As a frequent global traveller (often to 3rd world countries with social strife the average American refuses to acknowledge exists in the world), I suppose I’ve nearly seen it all with airline travel and global security fluctuations since 9/11. I’ll never forget being required to check and pay an extra $50 fee on United for my 5-weight (5-weight is very flimsy – analogous to an old-fashioned hickory switch) fly fishing rod at DEN, and seeing my dirty underwear being sniffed by an Alaska Airlines employee in Fairbanks (before TSA was created and the airlines were floundering; BTW – I patiently asked an AK Airlines supervisor if “something had just happened from a security standpoint”, and he practically screamed at me, “don’t you know about 9/11 and the Word Trade Center”?….the entire day was quite surreal, and I missed my connecting flight at ANC). I’ve met many kind, patient and reasonable TSA employees, but as an organization, TSA has reached the epitome of stupidity.

  • curtis

    This is an amusing and oft funny discussion thread. BTW – Richard Reid is the reason we have to remove our shoes. A good joke I’ve heard is, “too bad it wasn’t a female terrorist that hid explosive material in her bra. Then all women would have to remove their bras”. I certainly don’t seek to offend any female readers with a chauvinistic joke, but we need to laugh in order to to avoid crying!

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