TSA facing sharp pressure to prohibit knives on planes

The knives are out in Congress for the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) decision to allow small blades on airplanes.

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From the moment the TSA announced its decision to allow knives with blades shorter than 2.36 inches, lawmakers, unions and airlines themselves have been up in arms. The decision means that knives will be allowed onto airplanes for the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, when terrorists used box cutters to hijack four U.S. jetliners.

The pressure on TSA to backtrack on the knife decision mounted this week when 133 House members signed a letter to TSA Administrator John Pistole, asking him to reconsider removing the items from the agency’s prohibited list.

Additionally, a pair of senators said on Friday that they were planning to introduce legislation to force the agency’s hand.

TSA told The Hill on Friday that it was planning to implement the change on April 25, despite the mounting political pressure.

Eno Center for Transportation President Joshua Schank said the agency’s announcement of its knife decision was a “case study” in how not to introduce major policy changes.

“I’m surprised they haven’t buckled yet,” Schank said. “It’s an interesting case because transportation agencies are usually very adept at rolling out policy changes, because they learned quickly that they are going to get burned. If [Washington, D.C.'s] Metro is raising fares, they don’t just say ‘we’re raising fares.’ They hold hearings, they say ‘this is what we’re thinking.’”

TSA has cast the decision to allow knifes on planes as an extension of its move to a more “risk-based” security system, which the agency says will streamline airport security by focusing on passengers who trigger warning signs instead of a “one size fits all” approach.

The agency said that allowing small knives on planes "aligns [U.S. airport security] with international standards and our European counterparts."

Pistole told lawmakers during a House Homeland Security Committee meeting earlier this month that removing knives from its prohibited items list would allow airport security screeners to focus on searching for explosive devices.

"That's what risk-based security is all about, trying to identify what are the most significant risks ... and making sure that our officers and our entire national U.S. government national security team is trying to be as precise and focused on those threats that cause the greatest damage," Pistole said.

Pistole also told the panel that scissors, knitting needles and 7-inch screw drivers have been allowed on airplanes since 2005.

"We've had billions of passengers, approximately 620 million a year, travel in the U.S. with these items permissible and there has not been a single incident involving those in terms of attack on passengers, flight crew, federal air marshals, anybody," Pistole said.

The explanations have done little to mollify critics of the knife ban reversal.

Schank said TSA was in an awkward position because of the nature of its mission.

“TSA is a weird agency because so much of it is does involves secrecy,” Schank said. “They don’t want to explain because they don’t want to reveal their reasons for making changes.”

Still, Schank said TSA’s handling of the knife ban reversal blow back has left much to be desired.

“They have not taken care to get the stakeholders on board,” he said. “This could very well be a reasonable solution, but they have communicated that properly.”

Schank added that the agency’s reputation with lawmakers and airline passengers has not helped matters. TSA has been criticized in the past for its techniques such as pat-down hand searches and X-ray machines.

“They’ll all gladly jump on the ‘let’s bash TSA’ bandwagon,” Schank said of lawmakers. “Everybody loves that train.”

TSA has found at least one ally in the knife ban fight, the U.S. Travel Association.

“TSA is undertaking the right strategy by reevaluating their layers of security and seeing which ones they can safely peel back based on risk,” Travel Association Director of Domestic Policy Erik Hansen said in a statement provided to The Hill.

“As long as changes uphold the principles of security and efficiency, then we feel they are moving in the right direction,” Hansen continued. “In an era of limited budgets, it’s important that TSA be able to focus their energies and limited resources on more serious security threats.”

The Travel Association’s opinion of the TSA decision to allow knives onto airplanes is decidedly a minority stance.

"On September 11, 2001, hijackers on board United 93, United 175, American 77, and American 11 took over these planes using mace, box cutters and knives to attack passengers and crew," the House lawmakers wrote in the letter to Pistole, which was first drafted by Reps. Michael Grimm (R, N.Y.), Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) on March 12.

"After these deadly terrorist attacks of 9/11, all knives and dangerous sporting equipment, like pool cues, were placed on a list of prohibited items and banned from planes," the lawmakers continued. "Congress acted swiftly to ensure that TSA was afforded the resources and authority to ensure a secure aviation system for the American flying public. We strongly believe that the prohibition of dangerous items is an integral layer in the safety of our aviation system."