The truth about the TSA’s pointless knife fight

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?

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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.

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.

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.

“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:

Acceptable: “I totally disagree with you.”

Not acceptable: “I totally disagree with you, a***ole.”

Reason: That’s a personal attack.

Acceptable: “Just because you haven’t had a negative screening experience doesn’t mean everyone else has.”

Not acceptable: “I hope TSA agents grope your grandmother.”

Reason: Violates “do unto others” rule.

Acceptable: “Chris, you’re not being fair to the TSA. There’s another side to the story.”

Not acceptable: “Chris, you’re such an unenlightened idiot, I’m not even going to bother responding to every uninformed point you make. Do your research next time you write garbage like this.”

Reason: It’s not nice to your host.