Why Would the TSA Allow Knives on Planes?

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Can a pocket knife bring down an airliner? Or does it make more sense to look for explosives and more dangerous items instead?

The Transportation Safety Administration came under fire during the past few weeks for its decision to allow small-bladed knives on commercial aircraft in the United States beginning this Thursday, April 25.

The new policy would have allowed passengers to carry folding knives with blades 2.36 inches or shorter and less than half an inch wide, as well as pool cues, ski poles, hockey sticks, lacrosse sticks, golf clubs and novelty-size bats. The rationale was to speed lines and focus on explosives.

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But this week, TSA director John Pistole put the brakes on the policy shift and delayed the implementation “to incorporate … feedback about the changes to the Prohibited Items List and continue workforce training," according to a TSA statment released Tuesday.

So for now, those items are still banned.

Since announcing the proposed change, members of Congress, flight attendants and even 9/11 survivors and family members said it was a bad idea and urged the TSA to reconsider.

Aviation security experts seem to be of two minds. J. Chris Bonner, assistant professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and a former FBI counter-terrorism officer, said even small knives could be used to take hostages.

“Any sharp bladed object can be used as a weapon,” Bonner said. “Perhaps it doesn’t look threatening, but if one were to possess (such) a weapon you would have ability to gain advantage over the flight crew members, and that person could be used as a hostage to gain access to the cockpit.”

Bonner said the TSA is trying to shift its screening procedures to focus on situations, people and items that pose a greater threat.

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Yossi Sheffi, director of the Center for Transportation and Logistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, dismissed the threat of pocket knives. He said that in the post-9/11 world, passengers are now taking responsibility for their own safety and have stopped attempted bombings by would-be terrorists carrying explosives in their shoes and underwear.

“There is no risk,” Sheffi said. “They should allow these utensils or whatever on airplanes. If we are afraid people will attack each other, then we should outlaw eating in restaurants.”

Sheffi said he understands the need to ban realistic-looking toy guns for example, and larger knives. But he also noted that cabin doors are now reinforced and locked during the flight, making it impossible to enter the cockpit, gain control and turn the plane into a missile.

Perhaps it's this difference of opinion that is driving Pistole to hear from more experts on the TSA’s Aviation Security Advisory Committee, which includes representatives from the aviation community, passenger advocates, law enforcement experts and airplane industry executives. It’s still not clear when a final decision will be made.