TSA Under Fire For Allowing Small Knives Onboard

The Transportation Security Administration says starting next month, it's OK to bring small knives aboard passenger jets. The new policy is a result of the agency's shift from focusing on objects that might pose a threat to focusing on people. But many flight attendants, a few airlines and some lawmakers are pushing back against the new policy.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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And I'm Renee Montagne. The Transportation Security Administration has OKed a few items you'll be able to bring onboard a flight beginning next month. Hockey sticks, two golf clubs and small knives. The new policy is part of the TSA's shift from focusing on objects that might pose a threat to focusing on people who might. But many flight attendants, a few airlines and some lawmakers are pushing back against the new policy, as NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: The TSA says it spends a lot of time and effort every day confiscating small knives that passengers try to bring through security. TSA administrator John Pistole told a Congressional hearing yesterday, the agency confiscates 2,000 such knives each day along with, on average, four guns. Pistole says since 9/11 though it's virtually impossible to bring down a jet with a small knife.

JOHN PISTOLE: With hardened cockpit doors, better identification of individual passengers against terrorist watch lists, and thousands of armed pilots here in the U.S., and the demonstrated willingness of passengers to intervene in a determined way, it is the judgment of many security experts worldwide, which I agree with, that a small pocket knife is simply not going to result in the catastrophic failure of an aircraft.

NAYLOR: So Pistole has decreed that starting April 25, passengers will be able to bring those small knives on board along with some sporting equipment heretofore barred. But still no bottles of water. Sara Nelson, a Boston-based flight attendant with United, thinks the new policy is a mistake. Speaking at a news conference outside the Capitol, she says every day flight attendants have to deal with unruly passengers on board their aircraft.

Allowing those passengers to carry knives won't help.

SARA NELSON: We de-escalate issues and when necessary we direct passengers to help us contain the problem. And introducing weapons into that scenario is the wrong move.

NAYLOR: The flight attendants union, as well as those representing pilots and screeners, are opposing the new policy. So do Delta, American and U.S. Airways. Pistole told lawmakers, though, that his agency isn't charged with keeping order onboard flights, but stopping terrorists.

PISTOLE: So it really gets again to what is the intent of the person on board as opposed to the object, so if we simply focus on objects, then we're always behind the eight ball. The whole purpose is on the intent of the person. And so it really comes down to the mission of TSA. Is it to prevent disturbances by inebriated passengers onboard? I don't think so.

NAYLOR: Pistole says the biggest threat to aviation security today is an explosive device. He also pointed out that scissors, screwdrivers and knitting needles have been allowed onboard flights since 2005 without a single incident. Lawmakers are split on the issue. Alabama Republican Mike Rogers told Pistole he approves of the new policy and wished it went further.

REPRESENTATIVE MIKE ROGERS: I want to commend you on this list that you've come out with. I'd like for it to be a little longer, but you've made a good start and I think its common sense what you've done.

NAYLOR: But others say allowing knives on board passenger jets is asking for trouble. Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee.

REPRESENTATIVE SHEILA JACKSON LEE: You need to stop this now. These cause bleeding. These cause injury. These can cause a terrible tragedy. And I don't want to take it to the next length. It can possibly cause someone to lose their life.

NAYLOR: Jackson Lee and other lawmakers say they'll push for legislation to reverse the decision to allow small knives on board commercial flights. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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