The U.S. Transportation Security Administration’s decision to allow pocket knives on airliners was meant to signal a philosophical shift: focus less on screening everyone for everything, and more on terrorist threats.
Its move has instead sparked condemnation from executives of Delta Air Lines Inc. (DAL:US), AMR Corp. (AAMRQ:US) and US Airways Group Inc. (LCC:US); unions representing flight attendants, pilots and airport screeners; and members of the Federal Air Marshals Service.
The agency is showing no sign of backing down. Appearing today at a hearing of the House Transportation Security subcommittee, TSA Administrator John Pistole defended the new policy and the process that led to it.
“In the final analysis, somebody has to make a decision based on the input from all the experts, and do what is right for the greater good,” Pistole told a group of reporters. “I’m sticking with that decision.”
The debate gets to the heart of the agency’s mission. Is it supposed to make flying as safe as possible? Or should it concede that it can’t prevent everything and focus on stopping Sept. 11-like terrorist attacks using planes?
“It’s a mixed signal,” said Jeff Addicott, director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas. “You have a 90-year-old grandma, you’re going to strip-search her, and then you’re going to allow someone to carry on a knife? They’re not consistent in their approach toward security.”
J. David Cox Sr., who represents about 45,000 agency employees as national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said it gave the union less than an hour’s notice before making the knife change public.
The agency’s screeners think airport lines will clog as they argue with passengers over whether a knife is longer than 2.36 inches -- the maximum length allowed -- or the handle is molded, Cox said. He said the backlash could have been avoided by including the union in discussions before settling on the new policy, which takes effect April 25.
“There’s a lot of rage in the world,” Cox said. “We just don’t believe you need knives within the cabin of an airplane.”
Versions of what-was-TSA-thinking have been articulated often since the policy was announced. A petition on Change.org, “TSA: DO NOT allow knives on airplanes!” has garnered more than 10,000 signatures. A similar petition on the White House’s website, started by a coalition of flight attendant unions, has picked up more than 29,000 in a week.
“Before the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the threat of using commercial aircraft as a weapon was unknown,” the petition reads. “We know better today. The TSA was created because blades on airplanes were used to cause this deadly attack.”
Armed with box cutters, the Sept. 11 terrorists hijacked airliners and then flew them into New York’s World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. Box cutters remain banned. TSA Administrator John Pistole said March 5 there’s “just too much emotion associated with them.”
Knives on planes are a demonstrated danger, not an emotional issue, said Diane Horning, mother of Matthew Horning, who was killed at the World Trade Center in the Sept. 11 attacks. The TSA’s action “shows revisionist history at its worst,” Horning said in a statement.
“Flight attendants and passengers are the last line of defense, and commercial aviation must be safe and secure,” Horning said. “We do need to be able to travel without fear.”
The 2001 law that established the agency calls for it to prevent another Sept. 11-style catastrophe, said David Castelveter, a TSA spokesman. Added security in airplane cabins is a benefit, not a central part of its mandate, he said.
“Our primary responsibility is to stop another terrorist attack using an aircraft as a weapon,” Castelveter said. “A benefit of the things we do is preventing harm to passengers and crews from unruly behavior.”
Delta Chief Executive Officer Richard Anderson, in a letter to Pistole, said allowing items banned for more than 11 years would do little to improve the passenger flow at airports. Teamsters General President James Hoffa said the knife ban has been an integral part of U.S. aviation security, which made cabins on U.S. flights “the safest in the world.”
Reaction in Congress has been mixed, even within both political parties.
Representative Richard Hudson, the new chairman of the Transportation Security subcommittee, said ending the ban on small knives “balances security with efficiency.” The North Carolina Republican said he supports the agency’s effort to focus more on “risk-based” policies.
While supportive of the effort to “devote precious taxpayer dollar to low-risk people, places and things,” Hudson said the agency will have to work more closely with lawmakers when rolling out policy changes.
“This open and proactive approach will reduce pushback, like the kind we’ve seen the last couple of days,” Hudson said.
Representative Michael McCaul, the Texas Republican who leads the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement his priority is to make the agency “more passenger-friendly and threat-focused.”
“We know terrorist groups continue to target Americans, and in particular our aviation system,” McCaul said. One of the agency’s highest priorities “must be securing commercial aviation from the type of threats and weapons that could bring down an aircraft,” he said.
Lawmakers lining up against the change include New York’s senators, both Democrats, the senior Democrat on McCaul’s committee and two of that panel’s Republican subcommittee chairmen, Representatives Peter King of New York and Candice Miller of Michigan.
Representative Ed Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat running for the Senate seat vacated by Secretary of State John Kerry, decried the change at a March 12 news briefing at Boston’s Logan International Airport, where two of the planes hijacked on Sept. 11 took off. He was at the Capitol today with representatives from five flight-attendant unions, the Teamsters and the Federal Law Enforcement Officer Association to promote the “No Knives Act,” a bill he introduced to overturn Pistole’s decision.
At today’s House hearing, several Democrats brandished items that have been banned and asked Pistole why they weren’t considered a threat. Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the senior Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, held a hockey stick over his head and pointed it toward the TSA leader.
“How could this not be considered a big deal?” he asked.
The agency has concluded there’s no scenario in which a terrorist holding a hostage outside the cockpit could force a pilot to yield control of the plane, said Laura Glading, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents more than 16,000 American Airlines employees. While cockpit doors are secured, they have windows, she said.
“They’re going to look out there and possibly see a knife to a passenger, a child, a flight attendant, it could be their wife, and they’re going to be told to open the door or else,” Glading said. “To put the pilots in that position, when they are responsible for the safety and security of the entire airplane, is just crazy.”
Allianz SE (ALV), the Munich, Germany-based global insurer that underwrites the liability of U.S. airlines, thinks the new policy is unexpected and inappropriate, given people are already used to leaving pocket knives behind, said Joe Strickland, head of aviation, Americas, for the company’s global corporate and security unit in New York.
It’s not clear whether the policy will affect insurance rates, Strickland said. The change isn’t in the interest of the public or flight crews, he said.
“If someone has enough malevolent ingenuity, they can find ways to hurt people,” Strickland said. “But let’s take out the most obvious things.”
Pistole, who was deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation before joining the transportation security agency in July 2010, reminded lawmakers there was a similar outcry in 2005, when TSA lifted a ban on scissors, knitting needles and even smaller knives. In more than seven years since, there have been no reported attacks on aircraft using those items as weapons, he said.
Speaking to reporters today, Pistole said the agency would “socialize it more broadly” if it makes more changes to the prohibited-items list. A lot of the opposition is coming from flight attendants, he said.
“They’re very vocal,” Pistole said. “They’re very effective at expressing their dissatisfaction. They were very vocal in 2005, and yet there have been no incidents.”
The agency’s changes to its “prohibited items” list, which also include permitting hockey sticks, plastic Wiffle Ball-style bats and as many as two golf clubs, were based on recommendations of an agency working group that included intelligence experts, Castelveter said. Outside stakeholders were informed once the decision was made and weren’t consulted because the assessment included classified information, he said.
“Where there’s an opportunity to consult, we do,” Castelveter said. “Where we have to make decisions that are security-related, we don’t.”
Even tepid support from its congressional overseers marks progress for the agency, said Stewart Verdery, a former assistant administrator for policy and planning at the Homeland Security Department. In 2006, when the agency first tried to end a ban on butane cigarette lighters, Verdery said criticism from lawmakers caused the agency to put off the change.
“In an era of limited budgets, TSA has to focus on catastrophic attacks,” said Verdery, now a partner with the Monument Policy Group, a Washington-based lobbying firm. “TSA isn’t the agency that’s set up to guarantee flight attendants’ security.”
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