Air Travelers Allowed to Keep Small, Sharp Objects

The Department of Homeland Security is expected to announce soon that airline passengers will once again be allowed to carry small, sharp objects onto planes — including items such as screwdrivers and scissors, banned since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Airline passengers could soon see some changes at airport security checkpoints. The Transportation Security Administration is expected to announce on Friday that it will no longer prohibit passengers from bringing certain items onto airplanes, items such as scissors and tools. It's part of a broader plan by the agency to shift attention to what it sees as greater threats, such as explosives. NPR's Pam Fessler has the story.

Unidentified Man: Children's shoes, 11 years old and under, leave their shoes on unless they alarm.

PAM FESSLER reporting:

Ever since 9/11, airline passengers have faced often confusing directions on what to do to get through security checkpoints. At some airports everyone is asked to remove their shoes; at others, they're not. While most people think they're not allowed to bring nail clippers on board, in fact, nail clippers are allowed. Now the Transportation Security Administration is proposing rules that it thinks will make more sense and allow screeners to spend more time trying to detect the most serious threats. As part of the plan, the agency is expected to announce that passengers will no longer be prohibited from carrying on board certain sharp items, including tools and scissors with blades less than four inches long.

Airline industry groups that have been briefed on the proposal say they're pleased with the change; that they think it will make flying easier without jeopardizing safety.

Mr. DAVID CASTELVETER (Spokesman, Air Transport Association): We think this is the right decision, and we support it.

FESSLER: David Castelveter is spokesman for the Air Transport Association, which represents major airlines.

Mr. CASTELVETER: To focus our energies on everything that could potentially harm somebody on an airplane, with a very low probability of that happening, isn't using your resources to the best ability.

FESSLER: He says of far greater concern to airlines is the threat that someone will bring explosives on board or shoot down an aircraft with a shoulder-launched missile. TSA officials admit that their ability to screen for explosives has a long way to go. The agency is testing new technologies, but it's still possible for explosives to be slipped through security checkpoints. TSA Administrator Kip Hawley told Congress earlier this month that he wants screeners to be able to focus more attention on these risks rather than worrying about things that pose a much smaller threat. He notes that last year alone screeners confiscated some seven million prohibited items.

But the proposed changes aren't sitting well with at least one group, flight attendants. Pat Friend, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, says she's dismayed by TSA's plan.

Ms. PAT FRIEND (International President, Association of Flight Attendants): Why does someone need to have a pair of scissors with a four-inch blade in the cabin of an aircraft?

FESSLER: Friend notes that hijackers used similar-sized knives to carry out the attacks of 9/11.

Ms. FRIEND: And remember that it was our members and some passengers who were the first to die, and they died because they had their throats slit. So, you know, anything that could be an instrument of immediate death in the cabin of an aircraft is a concern for us.

FESSLER: She dismisses those who say reinforced cockpit doors and the presence of armed pilots and air marshals has reduced the risk of attack. Friend says such measures do little to protect those on the other side of the cockpit door, including passengers. She admits that things such as pens and belts can also be dangerous in the wrong hands but says, `Why make things easier?' She suspects it's because TSA doesn't have enough resources.

In fact, TSA officials acknowledge that airport screeners can't stop everything. Hawley has said he'd like to shake up airport security, so that it's less predictable for potential terrorists and more convenient for passengers. But Pat Friend of the Flight Attendants Association thinks passengers don't mind a little wait. She says she's already hearing from allies on Capitol Hill who plan to introduce legislation to stop the TSA proposal from taking effect. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

SIEGEL: And just how many prohibited items in total have been confiscated by the TSA? Well, we called them up, and this is what they said.

BLOCK: Since the TSA began passenger screening in February of 2002, they've confiscated 30 million prohibited items.

SIEGEL: Of those, nearly 12 million fell under the `sharp objects' category; most of those sharp objects were scissors. There were also about 60,000 box cutters, the weapon thought to have been used by some of the 9/11 hijackers.

BLOCK: So far this year about 13 million items have been confiscated; that includes three million scissors and about 800,000 tools ranging from screwdrivers to chain saws.

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