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TSA Small Knives Rule

America Needs Some Aviation Security Maturity

In the eyes of many Americans, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) can do no right. Stories about grandma getting a pat-down at the airport checkpoint make national news, with the public demanding that TSA take a more commonsense approach to passenger screening. The flying public seems to intuitively understand the idea of risk-based security; some passengers are more likely to pose a threat than others. Yet, when TSA attempts to implement a smarter approach to checkpoint screening, the agency encounters stiff resistance. Take the example of TSA’s decision to relax carry-on rules, allowing small knives and some sporting equipment through airport checkpoints. When the decision was announced last month, unions, lawmakers and some in the public decried the decision as dangerous, and it would seem there is a fight coming on Capitol Hill.

TSA Small Knives Allowed

The Transportation Security Administration will allow small pocket knives with non-locking blades smaller to be permitted in carry-on luggage. TSA image

The response to the relaxed rules has been emotional, and it is concerning that the outcry against allowing small blades through checkpoints is drowning out the heap of logic that led to TSA’s decision. One would think TSA is giving Crocodile Dundee-style hunting knives a pass, but what’s missing from the public debate is some level-headed recognition that there is a big difference between a bowie knife and a less-than 2.5 inch blade.

TSA’s new rules allow pen knives that are 2.36 inches or shorter and less than a ½-inch wide, as well as golf clubs and novelty baseball bats. The Flight Attendants Union has been at the vanguard of the opposition and has even launched a grassroots campaign to oppose TSA’s rule, accosting airline passengers at airport waiting terminals. Yet, the flight attendants’ position is based on self-interest, not national interest, and in the ongoing effort to prevent terrorist attacks, the country needs to exercise some security maturity. Rather than irrational fear, the ongoing debate needs to be based on logic and the sound security methodology TSA is using to amend the banned items list.


Blades Cannot Cause Another 9/11

During the September 11 attacks, terrorists used box cutters to force their way into the cockpit, turning passenger flights into weapons of mass destruction. It may be difficult to remember, but before 9/11, it was unthinkable that hijackers would board a plane with the intention of never getting off. This is why the 9/11 Commission concluded that the terrorist attacks occurred because of a “failure of imagination” – no one considered a suicide attack to be a viable threat.

Larger knives, as well as razor blades and box cutters, will remain prohibited in carry-on luggage under the new rules. TSA image

Larger knives, as well as razor blades and box cutters, will remain prohibited in carry-on luggage under the new rules. TSA image

Once that kind of threat became clear, industry and security agencies took decisive action to secure the aviation system against similar attacks. Before 9/11, airline policy was for pilots to do whatever hijackers asked, including opening the cockpit door. More than this, the cockpit door was not a security device. Al Qaeda terrorists exploited this vulnerability with devastating results. Today, cockpit doors are armored and made of ultra-strong materials, with deadbolts that, according to FAA regulation, must be locked before takeoff. Once airborne, pilots aren’t opening that door for anyone.

There are also plain-clothed, armed air marshals on flights. America doesn’t hear much about them, as discussing their presence and operation openly could give bad guys a sense of how to identify and target them. Nevertheless, terrorists relying on Swiss Army knives will find they have made the fatal error of bringing a knife to a gun fight.

Not only are the airlines and government agencies better prepared for a terrorist act, passengers are as well. There are numerous stories of passengers taking action in the cabin when they feel threatened. The flying public is not a herd of glassy-eyed cows chewing the cud while terrorists stalk the aisles. The country is getting used to the national obligation to see something, say something and when necessary, do something, too.

Perhaps the most important point missed during all the public outcry is that pen knives are already in the skies. In 2010, the International Civil Aviation Organization amended restrictions to allow onboard blades measuring 6 cm or less. This means that for nearly three years, foreigners have been carrying knives on their flight to America. Critically, no one has attempted to use them in a terrorist attack. The American fear of small knives is not justified by real-world experience.


Explosives are the Real Threat

It is important to recognize that al Qaeda and other terrorists are adaptive and creative. They know cockpit doors are locked, flights randomly contain air marshals, and the American public is itching for a chance to tackle a terrorist. An attack that relies on a small blade will not end in the large-scale destruction seen on 9/11, and there are not legions of al Qaeda devotees lining up to receive their terrorist-issue pen knife to launch a sure-to-fail attack that lands them in Guantanamo. Would that terrorists are considering pen knives as tools for attack – the threat to the aviation system would be far less.

At a recent hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee, TSA Administrator John Pistole identified the threatening item that deserves the most attention:

“We do know from the intelligence community that terrorists such as al Qaeda and their affiliate and inspired groups remain focused on attacking commercial aviation. We also know that the threat to aviation from these groups is from explosive devices.”

In December 2001, Richard Reid tried to secret onto an airplane an explosive hidden in his shoes, and in 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate explosives hidden in his underwear. Unlike small blades, bombs of any size will cause a lot of destruction. The failed aviation attacks of the last decade have employed explosives, not box cutters or other sharp instruments. That is not because terrorists are prevented from bringing small knives past security. It is because a bomb is one of the few weapons that could overcome the many security elements named above.


TSA Is Not a Police Force

The decision to allow small knives past security is an example of the methodology DHS is working to implement throughout all operations – that is, risk-based security. At its core, risk-based security is based on recognition that some items, people and circumstances are more threatening than others. With limited resources and real-world considerations (like checkpoint throughput), TSA must prioritize which items can be safely taken on flights. By allowing small knives through checkpoints, security officers can focus their attention on viable threats (i.e., explosives).

TSA Small Knives Airport Screening

Transportation Security Administration TSOs confiscate 2,000 small knives every day. Photo by Ben Popken

Currently, Transportation Security Officers confiscate about 2,000 small blades every day. When knives are removed from the banned items list at the end of April, all the time spent looking for small knives can be dedicated to looking for bombs. It is important to note that Transportation Security Officers will use their professional discretion when deciding whether a blade is shorter than the agency’s limit. Contrary to what some critics have speculated (Sen. Charles Schumer), TSA will not be opening up pen knives to measure their length, and it is silly and counterproductive to suggest that they will or should.

Implementing a risk-based methodology is a long-term process that began years ago. In 2005, TSA decided to take scissors off the prohibited items list. Scissors are just two knives stuck together, but since they have been allowed through checkpoints, no one has used them in an attack. The same is true for sewing needles, which were also removed from the banned items list in 2005. TSA has enacted other risk-based initiatives to target terrorists, such as intelligence-driven screening and behavioral analysis. Even as the banned item list is being amended to focus on real threats, other less visible TSA efforts are ever-more effective at ferreting out terrorists, regardless of what their bags contain.

It’s not that knives aren’t dangerous. It’s that they are less dangerous than other items, and TSA is not in the business of banning every potentially threatening item. Many seem to think TSA is the police force of the skies, preventing any threat to airline passengers. For better or worse, that is incorrect. TSA is a counterterrorism organization, and the agency’s mandate is to prevent aviation attacks that cause, in TSA’s words, “catastrophic failure.” Could flight attendants and passengers be cut by an unruly passenger? Sure, but that does not make them a terrorist, which puts them outside of TSA’s purview.

To ask TSA to make security decisions based on the public’s emotional response to small blades is to amend the agency’s mandate through public debate alone, diluting their pure and essential focus on stopping terrorists at the gate. As Congress gears up to address the banned items list, it is important that legislators and the people who elected them weigh not just their fear of small knives, but more importantly, the sound logic of allowing them through checkpoints.


Justin Hienz writes on counterterrorism, violent extremism and homeland security. In addition to his journalistic...