Knives On Planes: Redefining Safety In The Skies

Guests

Charlie Leocha, director, Consumer Travel Alliance
Laura Glading, president, Association of Professional Flight Attendants
Scott McCartney, Wall Street Journal travel editor and author of The Middle Seat Terminal blog

The Transportation Security Administration is set to enact changes to the list of prohibited items in April. Small pocket knives and some sporting goods will be allowed in carry-on items. The proposed changes were met with opposition from flight attendants and passengers who fear the items pose a safety risk.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. By late next month, you're going to be allowed to carry a Swiss army knife through the security line at the airport. The TSA changed rules on small, folding pocket knives, ski poles, novelty baseball bats and golf clubs. Cockpits are much more secure than they were in 2001, officials explained. Small weapons and hockey sticks can't bring down an airliner.

For many flight attendants and passengers, that's not the point. Safety means more than keeping the plane in the sky. Even small knives can do a lot of damage, they argue. With crowded planes and too many incidents of air rage, knives have no place in the cabin.

So if you're an airport screener, a flight attendant, a frequent flyer, call, tell us: What's safe? What's the point of these carry-on regulations? 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, how all those rude comments on online stories can change the way we understand the news, but first knives on planes. We begin with Charlie Leocha, the director of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit group created to educate legislators and regulators about consumer travel needs. He testified last November for the House Aviation Subcommittee that allowing small knives and sporting goods in airplane cabins is a good thing and allows the TSA to focus on larger threats to the airlines like terrorism. He's here with us in Studio 3A. Nice to have you with us today.

CHARLIE LEOCHA: Good to be here.

CONAN: So why should we allow small knives on airplanes?

LEOCHA: Well, I think philosophically, the point that we look at is that the reason that we have TSA is to keep airliners to be used - from being used as a missile, which is what happened during 9/11, and to keep explosives off planes so we don't have a catastrophic disaster. And when the rules were first put into effect back in 9/11, we didn't have secured cockpits.

Today we've got a cockpit that you can shoot a .44 Magnum at from three feet away, and the bullet won't penetrate the cockpit. We don't have the problems of people being able to get into the cockpit. They just won't get in. The pilots will land the planes first.

We also used to have a rule that if you were faced with a terrorist action or a hijacking action, you were supposed to remain calm and let the hijackers land their plane wherever they wanted to and get their day on the media and so on, and then they'd let you go, and that would be the end of the story.

So those things have all changed. And I think that we need to start looking at how we work the actual security of the airports and focus on what's really of danger to us. That's explosives right now, and that's where we're doing a really great job in terms of intelligence gathered on us, unfortunately, the American people, where everybody is pre-screened for every single flight against a terrorist watch list.

So if someone even shows up with some kind of explosive material at the airports, we've already probably failed. So, you know, let's just look at it realistically. And I realize that this is something which really creates emotional reactions in people. Some of my very best friends, who are, you know, smart, big thinkers, have a visceral reaction against it.

CONAN: Well by your logic, carrying a .22 revolver would be OK, then.

LEOCHA: You know, you probably could. You could carry a machete onboard. It wouldn't - it's not going to hurt the integrity of the aircraft. It's not going to be able to be used as a missile. However, the other thing that's changed is that people on board planes aren't going to just sit around anymore.

In the old days, everybody sort of cowered in the back or moved to the back or did whatever they were told. These days that's not happening that way. And as we've seen in the incidences in the air, people actually respond now and take down somebody who might be a would-be terrorist or someone who's just involved in air rage.

CONAN: It might be a little late for a flight attendant.

LEOCHA: It might be, but then again, I mean, I can understand all of these questions. However, every single one of us each day - the UPS man and the FedEx man comes to our front door with a box cutter. Every single day we get into trains, we get into subways, we get into public conveyances, and we have no idea of what anybody is carrying with them. We don't have these same securities.

And I think we just have to - it's going to take time, and I'm really disappointed in the way that TSA went about this rule. We have so many parts of the rule that could've really been used to make getting through security faster, easier and make sense to the American public. And when they came out with no knives as the very first thing, where I still can't carry a pair of pliers onboard, it's a little bit strange to me. And I think that we need to re-examine it a little bit.

CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation, Laura Glading, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants. She recently wrote a piece for USA Today where she argued to keep weapons out of plane cabins. She's on the line with us from her home in Westchester in New York. Good to have you with us today.

LAURA GLADING: Oh, thank you very much, I'm glad to be here.

CONAN: And I wonder, were your people consulted, the union, before these flight rules changed?

GLADING: No, we were not consulted, and of course we take great offense to that. We wish we had been. We certainly support the TSA's review of the policy, I mean, periodic reviews are very, very good. But I think in this case they really fell short of addressing, you know, improved travel and the safety of the passengers. I, you know, pretty much disagree with everything that the other guest, Charlie, just said.

First of all, you know, I think their responsibility goes far beyond keeping the airplanes from being missiles or being blown up. They are - in their own mission statement, they say that their responsibility is to secure U.S. transportation systems. And that's what they're charged with doing.

And I don't understand why they picked the articles they did to now be permitted on the airplane. I mean, knives are just to me an absolute no-starter. It seems crazy to me. I heard a passenger say - being interviewed say that if the flight attendants can be armed with knives to protect us, I guess it's OK. And it was reminiscent of a scene out of "West Side Story" that we would suddenly be engaged in knife fights. You know, it's...

CONAN: Well, I have to say that in the days when you used to work as a flight attendant, well, a Swiss army knife was OK. Were they a problem then?

GLADING: It was a whole different day back then. You know, we had really vast training on, you know, what would happen in the event of a hijacking, and we had no experiences like we had on 9/11. But let's face it, the world has changed. The people wanting to take down aircrafts have changed. But also passenger rage has changed.

Back when I started flying, people were dressed up, they were incredibly polite on an airplane. We have numerous incidents, over 1,000 at American alone, of passenger misconduct filings where people, you know, get out of hand. Traveling, let's face it, is very inconvenient, and tempers are very short. The last thing we want is people with a lot of weapons, you know, pocket knives.

And I don't know how this has really helped anything. We talk about freeing up, giving them more time to look at explosives. Well, aren't they going to have to now measure these knives? And how many passengers are really wanting to bring knives on? I mean now they may be able to, thinking everyone else is armed, but I don't have a whole lot of friends and family who have to, you know, put their pocket knives aside to get on an airplane. I don't know a whole bunch of people who say gee, I really would like to take my hockey stick with me in case a game breaks out somewhere.

(LAUGHTER)

GLADING: You know, it's silly. You're not going to get one guy carrying a hockey stick. You're going to get 48 people carrying hockey sticks because you're on a team. And then we have the added inconvenience of delaying flights and having to take those hockey sticks away from the passengers. But, you know, that's really only secondary to the whole idea that it would be OK to have the type of confrontations that we deal with on airplanes almost every day and now put into the mix a pocket knife. It doesn't make any sense to me whatsoever.

And I don't - you know, I guess - and the other thing is, two more short points. To say that the pilots are now trained, and they won't, you know, they'll land the plane safely, and everything will be OK, you know, we have to remember that there is communication between the flight attendants and the pilots, and there's even a way for the pilots to view what's happening in the cabin.

And if you had somebody standing at the door - and a journalist pointed this out - standing at the door, holding a knife to somebody's neck saying, you know, open that door or else, yeah, chances are - and they're trained not to react and to go ahead and land the plane. But we have a lot of husband-wife teams here, and I don't know that we wouldn't have a captain that would see his wife being held hostage out there with a knife to their neck - I mean, you're putting people in an incredibly dangerous situation so unnecessarily.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. Matt's(ph) on the line with us from Tucson.

MATT: Hi, I'm currently a captain with one of our major airlines, and I just wanted to pass along to you that while having these knives on the aircraft don't pose a significantly increased threat to me since I work behind an armored cockpit door, those people in the back of the airplane are still my responsibility, and I think it's absolutely insane that we would have more, you know, possible weapons or just downright weapons in the case of a knife, in the back of the airplane. It doesn't do my passengers any service whatsoever. And I don't know a single professional airline pilot or captain who is at all in favor of this rule change.

CONAN: Charlie Leocha?

LEOCHA: Well, as I said, this is an issue which is really emotional for a lot of people. You can look at it - sort of stand back and look at it, or you can - I mean, you can react to it, but the bottom line is that we need to do something in terms of how we're checking for forbidden items. And unfortunately, I really think the TSA approached this from a boneheaded point of view.

There are so many forbidden items that we could have taken off the list in terms of tools, like they already talked about in terms of their sporting equipments and so on, and they could have done this on a process, and done this step-by-step. They could have looked at the whole situation. But unfortunately it didn't happen.

In the end and when all is said and done, hopefully we're going to be at a point where we don't have to do as much searching for needles in haystacks at the airport.

CONAN: Matt, let me ask you: What are you trained to do if you look back in that camera and see a flight attendant being held, you know, even without a knife, with some - you know, hands can be deadly instruments, too.

MATT: Well, that flight attendant that you had on previously was absolutely right. We are not trained to open the cockpit under any circumstances, and that's probably as far as I can go with that answer before I start to run afoul of, you know, really telling you things I shouldn't.

But, you know, the point that I was trying to make is that you haven't - this rule change doesn't do a thing to increase or enhance security in the back of the airplane for the passengers, the people who pay the taxes, you know, to run the TSA and expect safe and reliable transportation. This is not an enhancing thing whatsoever.

CONAN: All right, Matt, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.

MATT: Thank you.

CONAN: Fly safe. If air travel is a big part of your life, if you work as a screener, a flight attendant, or you just fly a lot, call, tell us: What's safe to bring onboard a plane? 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Or you can send us an email, talk@npr.org. We'll have more in a minute. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. It's already tricky to figure out which things are OK to bring onboard a flight and which you'd better leave at home, unless you want them confiscated. As we discuss this issue, we got this tweet from EmmaFayeS. Safety means not having knives on planes, she wrote. It seems like I should be able to bring my shampoo, though.

Well, come April, knives with very short blades that don't lock will be allowed, but if you'd like to see pictures of what's OK and what is not, you can find a link to the TSA's visual update on knives on our website. Just go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

If you work security checkpoint on planes, fly frequently, we want to know what you think is safe to bring on an aircraft, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION, on Twitter @totn.

Our guests: Laura Glading, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants; and also with us is Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance. Let's get another caller in. This is Pat(ph), Pat's on the line from Denver.

PAT: Oh, hello, yes. I think it's good that they're creative about changes because things have changed. And I've always been concerned about the issue of explosives. So I feel like they're dealing with the one thing that I had a concern about. I think anybody who tries to attack and bring down a plane with a knife now is - it's not going to happen.

CONAN: But as the flight attendant pointed out, that doesn't mean that people in the back of the plane are going to be safe.

PAT: No, it doesn't. Exactly. It just means that it won't blow up.

CONAN: And that's good enough for you?

PAT: No, it's not. I have not seen a perfect situation yet. But I feel like they're trying to do something to improve the situation, and they could be right, it could be right.

CONAN: All right, Pat, thanks very much for the call.

PAT: I'm not in favor of it. I don't like that there's going to be knives.

(LAUGHTER)

PAT: I just think they have to do something. Thank you, bye-bye.

CONAN: Thanks very much, and here's an email from Sean(ph) in Cincinnati: While I'm skeptical of the provision for knives to come onboard planes, I'm thrilled by the provisions relaxing the rules on sports equipment, especially lacrosse sticks. Over the past couple of years, I've flown over a dozen times to events where I was working as a lacrosse coach and was forced to pay to check my bags exclusively because of the lacrosse sticks I needed to take with me.

I don't mind the inconvenience, but as most airlines now charge to check bags, it was infuriating to know I was paying $50 or more because of one piece that would fit very easily in overhead bins. Joining us now is Scott McCartney, travel editor for the Wall Street Journal. He writes the blog "The Middle Streets" - "The Middle Seat," rather. He's on the line with us from Dallas. Good to have you with us today.

SCOTT MCCARTNEY: Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And what do you make of these new regulations?

MCCARTNEY: Well, I think there's a lot of logic to it. And I know people are very upset about it, but the TSA's job is to prevent terrorists from committing acts of terror with airplanes. And with cockpit doors locked, you're not going to get control of an airplane with a small pocketknife. TSA, you know, security experts have been saying for many years that TSA needed to be focusing on real threats and get away from some of the ticky-tacky stuff with items that aren't threats to bring down airplanes.

And so I think the TSA under John Pistole has been moving pretty aggressively to essentially make the haystack smaller for the, you know, those needles that they're looking for in the haystack, and with the Trusted Traveler Program, with the Identified Crew Member Program, with - and now with the pocket knife issue, they're really trying to give the screeners time to focus on finding things that they really see as a threat.

CONAN: And I'm sure you can understand, though, from a flight attendant's point of view, that a two-inch blade to the throat is a terrorist act.

MCCARTNEY: Well, that's right, but we've allowed scissors that are smaller than four inches. You know, I think the real issue with the two-inch blade to the throat is more an air rage issue. It's more the confrontation, the problems with the angry customer, the mentally unstable person who goes nuts. But I don't think - and this is I think TSA's thinking here - that a terrorist is not going to attempt an act of terror with a two-inch blade to the throat of a flight attendant.

Terrorists want a bigger splash, and we've seen - you know, airline passengers have, you know, very little tolerance for people who get unruly on airplanes. And it's not to say something terrible could happen, but it is to say that that's probably not going to be the way that terrorists come after airplanes in the future.

CONAN: Laura Glading, I wanted to ask you, the TSA, when presented with complaints by your folks, among others, said, well, we negotiated with the airlines. If you've got a problem, you should talk to your employers, the airlines.

GLADING: Well, I don't know that that's correct. I don't know that the airlines - they're now starting to come out one by one, just within the last couple of hours, US Airways CEO Doug Parker asking for a reversal of that decision. And there have been a lot of conversations. And I'm actually pretty hopeful that they will reconsider. I don't know that that's their position.

But as far as I don't think a hijacker would think - or I would think that a hijacker could come up with something better than a knife to a flight attendant's throat, let's remember that's exactly how 9/11 went down were box cutters to flight attendant and passengers' throats.

And again, we have a very secure cockpit door, but there can be all sorts of things happening. I think the TSA has responsibilities somewhere in between an airplane being blown up and passengers, you know, having complete safety. I mean, the security and safety of that airplane, whose responsibility is that if it's not the TSA's? And I don't think you can maintain a secure cabin when you have people, you know, with knives in their pockets.

CONAN: Would you say that the majority of cases of air rage were - alcohol was a contributing factor? I mean, is that something we should look into?

GLADING: I think that that's, you know, a big factor, yes. Sometimes it's mental illness. Sometimes it's just the stress of traveling. And it's a completely different culture now. And it's very difficult to manage at times. You know, 99.9 percent of the passengers are just absolutely lovely and terrific, but you get people onboard and there are confrontations, and some of them get extremely serious.

We've seen some of those visions on televisions, pictures of people having to be strapped to chairs. And the notion that passengers, you know, will always intervene, will always save the day, you know, it's one thing - and that was an American Airlines flight with the shoe bomber, and the flight attendants were great, and they jumped right in there. They were injured.

But it's a little bit different story when a person has, you know, a match, and you're a little bit - you know, it's a little bit easier to jump on their back and try to tackle them. If somebody's swinging a golf club, and it means losing your teeth on the way in, or if somebody's, you know, with a knife, I don't know that people are going to be as quick to jump all over them.

And it's not just one knife or two knives. You can have a, you know, 20 people traveling together with knives who have planned to terrorize an aircraft and take over an aircraft. And I think Max(ph), the pilot who called in, had a very good point. Those passengers are his responsibility, too. And what are we asking our pilots to do? You know, not just our flight attendants who are risking their lives, but we're asking our pilots to fall short of their responsibilities. To me it's completely ludicrous.

CONAN: Let's get Autumn(ph) on the line, Autumn with us from Jacksonville.

AUTUMN: Hi, I just wanted to say I travel with my two young children quite frequently cross-country, and the idea, I think, of having tools or, like, a pair of scissors to open something is a great idea. However, I think I would rather not be able - have the inconvenience of not being able to open something and know that I am safer because of that than having tools or, like, scissors or knives, anything like that. That's terrifying to me, especially traveling with children.

CONAN: And Charlie Leocha, is changing this regulation actually going to give TSA screeners more time to look for more dangerous things? I mean, those knives show up pretty well on those radar...

LEOCHA: Well, you're reading my mind. What they've done is they've actually created a situation where people who are in favor of relaxed searches at the airport, like myself, who I don't think we need to look for all of these areas, look in all these areas that are not any more dangerous, and people who want to have everything kept out, both - neither one of us like this because now all of the sudden we're going to have to set up a bureau of weights and measures at the airport.

I mean, even the whiffle-ball bat has to be less than 24 ounces. I mean, how ridiculous could that be? And then, you know, now the knives are down to 2.63 inches or .36 inches, and who has a ruler these days with tenths of inches in it? We don't even have - we don't use the metric system here in the States. So now we've got to get some sort of special measuring stick to measure the knives.

So what we've done is we've just substituted more problems for the screeners instead of making their life easier, and we're adding more angst to travelers instead of making their travels less stressful.

CONAN: Scott McCartney, this is a periodic review process. As different threats emerge, for example the fluids, they change the regulations; annoying, but people I think understood the reason for it. Again, the shoe bomber, well, we all take our shoes off, and his name will go down despised in history for that. But as - ought there to be a comprehensive review at some point?

MCCARTNEY: Well, I think it's a constant review, and I think TSA does look at this stuff pretty safely. Look - you know - I mean, I'm not one to be in the position of defending TSA, but I think some of this is - I would disagree with Charlie on the impact at checkpoints and the notion that everybody is going to be measuring something down to the tenth of an inch. That's just not the case.

And TSA - you know, we all have to comply with three-ounce bottles. Well, we've all sort of figured out what a three-ounce bottle looks like, and I think most screeners and most passengers know what a half-inch is and a half-inch blade, and some of it is a judgment call. But the benefit is that when the bag goes through the X-ray machine and you see the little Swiss army knife, you don't have to pull that passenger out of line and start searching through the whole bag for the Swiss army knife.

Or the person has it in their pocket and you get into a big discussion about, you know, why can't I take my little knife, I did the last time and all that. I think there is a benefit for removing things from the list that screeners have to search for and removing the reasons why people are going to get held up at the screening line.

CONAN: You also wrote in your piece that this would bring the United States closer to international standards.

MCCARTNEY: Yeah, and that's a significant thing because we have - because we have different standards than the rest of the world, and some of it certainly - you know, we have lots of reasons for that and good reasons. But the closer you can get to international standards, then you can accept other countries' screening.

So from many nations, for flights into the United States, passengers have to go through a second screening which meets U.S. standards. And the more uniform standards get around the world, the easier it is for travelers, the easier - the more effective checkpoints can be. And as long as we're comfortable with those standards as being safe, then there's a benefit to travelers.

CONAN: We're talking with Scott McCartney, travel editor for The Wall Street Journal. He writes the blog "The Middle Seat." And also with us, Laura Glading, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, and Charlie Leocha, who's director of the Consumer Travel Alliance. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And there are some other opinions that we wanted to cite in this argument. Senator John McCain suggested that TSA reforms need to go further. In an interview with Piers Morgan, Senator McCain said: My concern is that our TSA procedures have basically not changed in the last 12 years. He cited long lines and invasive searches. We need a congressional hearing on the whole issue of what's a danger to the entire flight.

Delta Airlines CEO Richard Anderson said Friday he shares the legitimate concerns of his flight attendants. If the purpose is to increase the security checkpoint flow, there are much more effective steps we can take together to streamline the security checkpoints with risk-based screening mechanisms, he wrote in a letter to the TSA.

Senator Charles Schumer said he saw few tangible benefits for passengers. On Sunday, he called on the TSA to reverse its decision to allow small pocket knives on airplanes. At an afternoon news conference in New York, Senator Schumer said TSA agents would be distracted by having to measure knives and other items like baseball bats. These items are dangerous and have not become less so in the years since they were banned from planes. Now is the time for - not the time for reduced vigilance or to place additional burdens on TSA agents who should be looking for dangerous things.

Let's get Darla(ph) on the line. Darla is with us from Garden Valley in California.

DARLA: Yes, sir. I'm a former flight attendant, and I've had multiples of problems with people with fishing poles, and I know that you've had guests talk about sporting equipment. But literally people get really aggressive and really upset. I mean, I had a guy who had fishing poles draped across three rows of seats by the window, thought it was safe, and the hook and all was on there. And I have 137 passengers to worry about, OK, and making sure my pilots are OK and their needs are taken care of.

And then you got moms that don't want to go by the rules because they think - they want the baby between the mom and the dad. And then you've got the drunk people that you don't even know they're drunk because they appear and they smell OK. They appear to be fine, and then you serve them a drink and find out they have their, you know, Jack with them or something.

And so now I got to worry about knives? I mean, come on. I mean, we have enough to worry about on the plane. We don't need to worry about knives and what people are holding. It's bad enough when I clean the seats. In the back of the pocket seats, hypodermic needles are there from people that are diabetic. They just stuck them there. You know, they just leave them there, sticking - you know, it just - there's so many things that are involved being a flight attendant that people do not understand.

We are nurses. We are bartenders. We are counselors. We've got kids that are traveling across the states from California to New York with no parents, you know, underage, or unaccompanied minors is what we call them. And then you got to worry about people with knives? It's bad enough trying to keep an eye on that kid and then the other 137 people.

So that's what I got to say. I'm not - I think that flight attendants are there, we are trained - the first thing we are taught is safety is first. We need to get you from point A to point B. Safety is always first. And if we don't feel safe, then how are you going to feel safe as a passenger? Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Darla, for the phone call.

DARLA: Bye-bye.

CONAN: And I wanted to talk to you, Scott McCartney. We just have a minute or so left, but given the kind of outcry you've seen, do you think the TSA will change its mind?

MCCARTNEY: I think that's quite possible. You know, I think the TSA is trying to be more responsive to people. You know, they have been pushing risk-based security much harder than they ever have before. And I think, you know, the - they're trying to get people signed up into a Trusted Traveler program, which has actually worked pretty well and the travelers like. And you don't have to take off your shoes, you don't have to take out your liquids or your laptop or you take off your jacket and all that kind of stuff. It's sort of old-fashioned screening through a metal detector instead of a body scanner, and it's a good program. Travelers who are in it love it and they're trying to get more people signed up and into it. But, you know, if the public wants knives banned, then I suppose, sure, they will, you know, back down but we'll see.

CONAN: Oh, I guess I won't sell my stock in Swiss army knives then.

MCCARTNEY: No, if you want them cheap. I mean, the other end of this is TSA confiscates thousands and thousands and thousands of these things, and they're given to states to be auctioned off. And so you can go in Sacramento or Austin, Texas, or Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, or lots and lots of places where states sell surplus merchandise and find, you know, literally tens of thousands of Swiss army knives that had been confiscated by TSA and they sell them by the pound.

CONAN: Scott McCartney, Laura Glading and Charlie Leocha, thank you all very much for your time. When we come back from a short break, we're going to be talking about the nasty comments on some online articles and how they change our opinion of what that article was about.

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