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The rationale behind knives on a plane

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POSTED April 11, 2013 10:41 p.m.

When the Transportation Security Administration announced that it will allow passengers to carry small knives on planes effective April 25, my reaction matched that of Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., who has called the policy change “misguided and, frankly, dangerous.” It’s impossible to think about the ban on knives on planes without remembering what prompted it — the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

But then I thought, I’m always urging Washington to reconsider regulations that don’t work. Maybe the TSA is right.

Here’s the argument for removing small knives (with blades up to 2.36 inches long) and sports equipment (golf clubs, lacrosse sticks) from the TSA’s list of prohibited items for carry-on baggage: Other items can be used as weapons on planes. After 9/11, cockpit doors were reinforced, and passengers learned they should fight back. Would-be terrorists know this.

“Knives don’t hold the threat that they once did,” said Department of Homeland Security spokesman Nico Melendez.

The TSA is focusing on foiling terrorist attempts to blow up planes rather than on preventing terrorist attacks rooted in a pre-9/11 security landscape.

In 2005, the TSA began allowing passengers to carry sharp objects, including scissors with 4-inch blades. Eight years and more than 3 billion passengers later, TSA Administrator John Pistole noted in a letter to Swalwell and other lawmakers, there hasn’t been “a single reported disruption from these objects.”

Veda Shook, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, opposes the new policy. She’s angry that Pistole did not include her union and other stakeholders in the process. She supports the TSA’s risk-based approach, as seen in the Trusted Traveler program that allows children who are 12 or younger, adults who are 75 or older and some frequent fliers to go through expedited screening. Flight attendants, pilots and members of Congress also get the fast-track treatment.

Both Shook and Swalwell are skeptical of TSA claims that security lines will move faster when agents don’t have to check for knives. (It takes time to measure blades.) They also point out that it’s not as if the public was demanding the opportunity to fly with little knives.

But when screeners don’t have to look for knives that wouldn’t bring down a plane, maybe they’ll be able to make lines move faster and concentrate on examining liquids and other potential explosive material.

Shook told me she thinks it’s wrong for the TSA to fixate on stopping terrorist attempts to use planes as weapons of mass destruction. “This isn’t just about terrorists,” she argued. She also worries about criminal violence on planes.

I asked Shook about Pistole’s claim that the scissors policy hasn’t hurt anyone. She did not contest it.

I fly. I don’t want to be on a plane with a nut with a knife. But I wonder whether an entire corps of security should concentrate on thwarting tactics that haven’t made sense for 12 years. Were knife attacks on planes a problem before 9/11? I don’t think so.

Swalwell doesn’t reject the policy completely. “Why not try and start first with Trusted Travelers?” he asked. They’re the least risky fliers. Try it; see what happens.

Meanwhile, I savor the fact that I lived long enough to see the administrator of a big federal bureaucracy decide that he rather would see his team do one thing well than two things poorly. Pigs can fly.

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