TSA chief defends decision to allow knives on airplanes

Pistole told lawmakers on the House Homeland Security Committee on Thursday that the removing knives with blades shorter than 2.36 inches 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. 

The decision to allow knives on planes for the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks has come under fire from lawmakers and airline workers.

Unions for pilots and flight attendants have called for the TSA to reverse its decision, as have members of Congress.

“It doesn’t make very much sense to stop someone from bringing a four-ounce bottle of shampoo onto a plane, but allow them to bring a knife on board,” Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) said in a statement after the hearing Thursday.

“Flight attendants, along with the airlines they work for, have expressed significant concerns about this policy change, and as long as they are the first line of defense in the case of an attack, I share their concerns,” Slaughter continued.

In his comments to lawmakers on the House Homeland Security Committee, Pistole cast the decision to allow passengers to carry knives and sporting equipment like golf clubs and hockey sticks onto airplanes as a logical extension of TSA's move away from a "one-sized fits all" approach to airport security.

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

"We've had of 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 chairman of the Homeland Security Committee's Transportation Security Subcommittee cast blame for the strong push back on the decision to allow knives onto airplanes to a lack of communication by TSA.

"You have a difficult job, and we want to support you," Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) said to Pistole. "But we must have open and clear communications and it should be a priority for us to put a strategy together so that you're not faced with Congress pushing back against simply, common sense things you're trying to do, because they felt like they didn't have enough information."

Hudson told Pistole that TSA should brief lawmakers ahead of major policy changes to help lawmakers on the Transportation Security panel "educate the rest of our colleagues in the House and appropriate stakeholders on the reasoning behind such decisions.

"The open and proactive approach will reduce push back like the kind we've seen the last few days," Hudson said. "And allow all of us to work together on rolling out the risk-based security policies that directly benefit passenger safety, ease of travel, and ultimately make TSA a leaner, more efficient agency, and effective agency." 

Despite the congressional criticism, TSA has said that it will implement the changes to its prohibited items list on April 25.