Risk-Based Security: Knives and Axes

headlesstsaAfter a 6-week hiatus from flying, I’m back in the role of female opt-out[i] in a brand new Delta[ii] terminal with free internet and ipads[iii]. I heard last week that the TSA plans to allow small knives in carry-ons, for the first time since 9/11, as “part of an overall risk-based security approach”. But now it appears that flight attendants, pilot unions, a number of elected officials, and even federal air marshals are speaking out against the move, writing letters and petitions of opposition.

“The Flight Attendants Union Coalition, representing nearly 90,000 flight attendants, and the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations, which represents 22,000 airline pilots, also oppose the rule change.”

Former flight attendant Tiffany Hawk is “stupefied” by the move, “especially since the process that turns checkpoints into maddening logjams — removing shoes, liquids and computers — remains unchanged,” she wrote in an opinion column for CNN. Link is here.

The Association of Flight Attendants, representing 60,000 flight attendants working for more than 20 airlines, said last week that it “strongly opposed” the TSA rule change, which it believes threatens security on planes.

“For years, AFA has partnered with TSA on important security issues, which makes it hard to understand why we were not consulted on this policy reversal,” lamented AFA International Vice President Sara Nelson.

But what I want to know is how TSA officials could be making unilateral decisions about U.S. air safety largely on their own, without these other aviation workers being involved?  Don’t these people talk?

Pistole Decision

The decision was spearheaded by John Pistole, head of The Sports Authority (TSA) Transportation Security Authority (TSA). According to the TSA blog (yes even they have a blog)

TSA Administrator John S. Pistole made the decision to start allowing the following items in carry-on bags beginning April 25th:

  • Small Pocket Knives – Small knives with non-locking blades smaller than 2.36 inches and less than 1/2 inch in width will be permitted

  • Small Novelty Bats and Toy Bats

  • Ski Poles

  • Hockey Sticks

  • Lacrosse Sticks

  • Billiard Cues

  • Golf Clubs (Limit Two)


But what I want to know is why only two golf-clubs?

By putting less focus on these items, Pistole says, airport screeners will be able to focus on looking for bomb components, which present a greater threat to aircraft. Such as:

bottled water, shampoo, cold cream, tooth paste, baby food, perfume, liquid make-up, etc. (over 3.4 oz).

They do have an argument; namely, that while liquids could be used to make explosives[iv] sharp objects will not bring down a plane. At least not so long as we can rely on the locked, bullet-proof cockpit door. Not that they’d want to permit any bullets to be around to test…  And not that the locked door rule can plausibly be followed 100% of the time on smaller planes, from my experience. But the real question is: will letting the sports teams bring on their Hockey clubs or Golf rackets [v] really translate into more time spent confiscating perfume identifying genuine threats?

CEO of Delta, Richard Anderson says no. He wrote a letter to Pistole saying

he shares the “legitimate concerns” of Delta flight attendants about the decision. He says allowing small knives will do little to speed up passenger screening — but adds risk for cabin staff and passengers.

And Veda Shook, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said the move is “completely unnecessary” and “makes no sense.” Rather than freeing up time, she predicted that security officers will get more bogged down testing and measuring the knives to see if they meet the criteria.

The rule says a blade more than 2.36 inches is too big, but there are all sorts of details about the kind of handle that is/is not allowed.

The Flight Attendants Union Coalition, representing nearly 90,000 flight attendants, and the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations (CAPA), which represents 22,000 airline pilots, also oppose the rule change. (link is here.)

[Aside from waiting in the security line while they argue  if a blade is too big,  imagine being behind a team of 20 (sweaty) hockey players who choose to carry on their sports equipment, while others have to toss out deodorant, perfume and baby food?  And won’t the airlines lose out big on baggage fees?]

Battle axes and machetes?

When the former TSA chief, Kip Hawley, was asked to weigh in, he fully supported Pistole; he regretted that he hadn’t acted to permit the above sports items during his reign service at TSA:

“They ought to let everything on that is sharp and pointy. Battle axes, machetes … bring anything you want that is pointy and sharp because while you may be able to commit an act of violence, you will not be able to take over the plane. It is as simple as that,” he said. (Link is here.)

I burst out laughing when I read this, but he was not joking:

Asked if he was using hyperbole in suggesting that battle axes be allowed on planes, Hawley said he was not.

“I really believe it. What are you going to do when you get on board with a battle ax? And you pull out your battle ax and say I’m taking over the airplane. You may be able to cut one or two people, but pretty soon you would be down in the aisle and the battle ax would be used on you.”

There does seem to be an emphasis on relying on passengers to rise up against ax-wielders, that passengers are angry these days at anyone who starts trouble. But what about the fact that there’s a lot more “air rage” these days? (NPR has an interesting and very funny interview.) That creates a genuine risk as well…

Security expert Rafi Ron[vi] says the TSA should focus on risky people rather than risky objects.

“Risk is not measured by the item, whether it is a knife or gun. It is measured by the person holding it. A bad guy with a Swiss Army knife can still cause a lot of damage to the crew and passengers in the cabin before the aircraft can land.”

Well sure, guns don’t kill people….but what does this have to do with golf clubs vs baby food, or with applying Pistole’s risk assessments vs the risk assessments of the groups of aviation workers, passengers, etc. (Read the flight attendant’s accounts in the NPR interview.)

Personally, I’m all for liberalizing the restrictions, but not for a decision-making process that lets a Mr. Pistole or Mr. Hawley decide without including the risk assessments of other “stake holders” to use a popular term (which I dislike, but it works).

How did the TSA turn into 50,000 “uniformed officers” anyway?[vii]

Why do I have a sneaking suspicion that the TSA obtained tacit approval from some “stakeholders” who are now running the opposite away, seeing the outrage…?  What do you think?

[i] For background, see TSA at “rejected posts”. This too may go over to the alternate blog at some point.

[ii] An “oily boid” flight from ROA to NYC. Stock note: DAL flying high over $16 (first time since, I think, Feb. 2008!).

[iii] What a clever way to get more data on our trolling habits.

[iv]Never mind that several 3.4 oz bottles are allowed, and that any amount purchased after screening may be taken on board.

[v] John Worrall would not forgive me for confusing the name of the equipment used in what he claims is the absolute most perfect sport in all the world, though I won’t say which it is.  But Worrall I’m guessing does not follow my blog.

[vi] president of Virginia-based New Age Security Solutions and former head of security of Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel.

[vii] I have nothing against TSA employees: the women who have gotten me through years of “female opt-outs” have been very professional and kind.

Categories: evidence-based policy, Rejected Posts, Statistics

Post navigation

17 thoughts on “Risk-Based Security: Knives and Axes

  1. E. Berk

    Hearing on this, later this afternoon live: http://homeland.house.gov/hearing/sa’s-efforts-advance-risk-based-security

  2. Clark

    The TSA has failed to take my sage advice. Let people take whatever they want on planes other than a gun or an explosive. Give each passenger a full can of coke that must be returned, full, at the end of the flight. Stoning–or coking–puts a quick end to would be terrorists.

  3. Bob

    One shouldn’t expect anything intelligent from a government bureaucracy. That’s why we need to start eliminating them rather than continuing to give them more oversight over more aspects of our lives.

    • Bob: But how?
      I don’t see why individual airlines and their affiliates aren’t given the incentive to come up with better ideas and compete. I know some have pre-check for certain select passengers, but I mean more generally. While I’m on the topic: I’m mystified as to why around a year or so ago, airlines were forced to adopt a number of cost-increasing rules: e.g., allow people 24 hours to change their tickets with 0 penalty (in case they made a mistake the govt said), add hundreds in taxes for the TSA and combine the taxes with the ticket price rather than show them separately.

  4. vagabond

    Of course flight attendants oppose it. They do that because they don’t want people bringing more carryons. In one word, they’re lazy. Give me a break on the “safety concerns”.

    I’m happy they’re allowing pool cues on planes. I absolutely hate checking in my 2k pool cue and risk getting it stolen / thrown around / recovering it 2 weeks after the tournament is over and such. Also I don’t want it stored at low temperatures. Im sure not just pool players feel the same way about their expensive equipment that they need to check in.

    • Nicole Jinn

      Why do you say that flight attendants are lazy? My mother is a flight attendant, so I don’t want to think that flight attendants are lazy. Maybe some of them are lazy, but it’s always dangerous to make such general or universal assumptions when flight attendants are of so many different types. Just be careful what you wish for.

      • Nicole: Obviously the vagabond doesn’t have any evidence: I fail to see why more carry-ons mean more work. My guess is that the guys on the TSA review panel are mostly…ah,well… guys.

    • vagabond: The flight attendants I’ve known seem to have a brutal job, but then again, I’m not that into flying. How do you fit pool cues on the overhead? I had never heard of people traveling with pool cues on a plane. Admittedly the checked luggage gets beaten up from time to time. I’ve picked up luggage looking like it went through a shredder. But it’s rare.

  5. vagabond

    People used to travel with cues all the time-pool players that is. Pool cues break in half, and a pool case easily fits in the overhead and takes little space. While my “lazy” comment was harsh – and i apologize for it – i think their(flight attendants) underlying intent is still the same. They would choose the option of a little more convenience (keeping things the same), vs a slight extra headache managing overhead compartments but a major convenience for guys like me.

    And yet, I do understand their point of view though. BTW- Yes, more carry-on does mean more work. You will always have a bunch of morons that carry 3 stuffed huge backpacks on the plane and occupy one full overhead bin with their crap. Flight attendants then have to find empty bins for the others passengers in other parts of the plane. Happens ALL the time.

    On top of that, now they will have to accommodate even more golf clubs/cue cases etc. What bugged me was the fact that they slapped “safety concern” on it. It’s really, really not a safety concern.

    • Maybe they plan to lay off some TSA people and without all the knives to confiscate, they won’t need as many.

  6. Outdoor Sportswoman

    I think the real risk here is allowing pointy objects on buses and trains. Also in public spaces. None of those even have impenetrable cockpits, and someone could go postal literally at any moment. The government needs to do its job and limit more of our nonessential freedoms because there is absolutely no reason people would need to have a sharp object both where they are and where they’re going.

    I mean, someone who wants to pack a knife for rock climbing or fishing really needs to pay the extra $50-100 so they can safely hide it away in a checked bag and prevent themselves from accidentally attack someone with it. The risk of accidentally attacking someone increases tenfold depending on which side of airport security you are standing. Besides, if someone can afford to climb or kayak they are obviously a wealthy jerk who should pay 100-200 round trip so they can carry their multitool. And yeah, in 12 years of post-9-11 flying over maybe 50 flights, I’ve had about $350 worth of knives confiscated from me because they are a daily carry and I don’t always remember to check each pocket of each suitcase and each coat and each kit bag during the stress of last-minute packing.

    Were checked bags free, I might agree. Knives are an essential safety tool for me; I have never turned one on a person or animal, but I have saved my own life at least twice by cutting myself free with a knife. But for me this policy means I have to buy a new cheap knife every time I travel somewhere and plan to do an outdoor sport. That means it’s not always broken in, or that how to open it easily in one hand is not in my muscle memory, which can be the difference between life and death when you’re trapped underwater with a cord around your neck.

    I will agree though that the two-club rule seems nuts. If I were taking it for a weapon, I wouldn’t need a full set.

    • Do you propose they have inspections before we get on buses and trains? They sometimes check people’s bags in subways here in NY, but certainly not on a regular basis. TSA may be expanding into these arenas.

Blog at WordPress.com.