TSA Administrator John Pistole recently dropped the TSA’s proposed plan to allow passengers to carry pocket knives and other small knives (2.36 inches or less in length, and no more than ½ inch wide) onto aircraft. Currently all knives and sharp objects (as noted in TSA’s Prohibited Items List (PIL)) must be placed in checked baggage. This was one of the aircraft security rules that followed in the wake of 9/11, given the attackers’ use of box cutters to overpower the passengers, flight attendants and flight crews.
But with security measures now in place such as locked cockpit doors and the arming of pilots with guns, knife manufacturers like Victorinox Swiss have lobbied the TSA to follow the lead of other countries and rescind the ban. The European Union, for example, allows passengers to carry knives on board aircraft that are less than 6 centimeters in length (which is equivalent to the 2.36 inch maximum recommended by TSA). In doing so, the EU followed ICAO’s suggested PIL, which lists knives of such length as being permitted on board aircraft in some ICAO countries.
On March 13, 2013, the TSA issued a statement that it planned to follow the ICAO PIL and rescind the ban, and also allow sporting good items like bats and golf clubs in carry-on baggage. (Photos of the knives and sporting goods that TSA planned to allow are shown on its official blog). The Coalition of Flight Attendant Unions vociferously opposed the measure, and presented TSA with a legal petition signed by their members, TSA screeners, pilots, law enforcement officers (including federal air marshals), and passenger rights associations. The U.S. Congress was also outraged and sent a letter to Pistole signed by 145 of its members opposing the change. After realizing the opposition he was up against, Pistole backtracked and said that the TSA would not pursue the change. Just to ensure he had no funds to do so should he change his mind, the U.S. House voted to block any funding that the TSA would need to lift the ban.
One of the notable things about this latest TSA episode is that it marks the first time that TSA sought the input of its Aviation Security Advisory Committee on whether to lift the ban. The Committee is comprised of flight attendants, air marshals, airline management and labor reps, airline consumer groups, and advocate group representing victims of aviation terrorist attacks. So far in its history, TSA has used the group to convey final rulings, but has never sought its input as part of the agency’s decision making process. Perhaps Pistole’s rough ride in trying to lift the knife ban will lead to more democratic discussions in the future regarding TSA’s more controversial measures.