Why TSA delayed its new rules allowing knives on airplanes

Pressure from flight attendants and members of Congress prompts the Transportation Security Administration to delay new rules that would have let passengers carry small knives and some sporting equipment onto airplanes.

By , Staff writer

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    This undated handout image provided by the Transportation Security Administration shows a page from a TSA pamphlet of Changes to Prohibited Items List, of small knife guidelines allowed and not allowed on airplanes per a new policy that was to go into effect April 25.
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Bowing to pressure from flight attendants and members of Congress, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) said it would delay implementation of new rules scheduled to take effect on Thursday that would have let passengers carry small knives and some sporting equipment onto airplanes.

TSA Administrator John Pistole sent word of the change in an e-mail to employees on Monday. Politico Pro obtained a copy of the message, which came after Mr. Pistole met with his Aviation Security Advisory Committee.

The agency later posted a brief statement on its website: “In order to accommodate further input from the Aviation Security Advisory Committee (ASAC), which includes representatives from the aviation community, passenger advocates, law enforcement experts, and other stakeholders, TSA will temporarily delay implementation of changes to the Prohibited Items List, originally scheduled to go into effect April 25.”

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The agency did not link the change to the bomb attacks at the Boston Marathon, instead saying that the move “will enable TSA to incorporate the [advisory panel's] feedback about the changes to the Prohibited Items List and continue workforce training."

But critics of the loosened rules did make such a link. Sara Nelson, international vice president of the Association of Flight Attendants, told USA Today that "[i]n the wake of the terrorist bombing in Boston last week ... now is not the time to weaken transportation security.” 

Ms. Nelson added that "[f]light attendants are breathing a sigh of relief that the weapons that led to the deadliest attack on US soil in our nation's history will not be allowed in the aircraft cabin this week." 

The Associated Press quoted the flight attendants’ group as saying in a statement, “all knives should be banned from planes permanently.”

Pistole had announced the new regulations on March 5, saying they would allow airport security screeners to focus on items posing greater risks. The TSA proposal would have allowed passengers to carry knives with blades that were 2.36 inches long or less and less than half an inch wide through security checkpoints. Passengers also would have been allowed to carry on two golf clubs, hockey sticks, billiard cues, and toy plastic bats.

In addition to flight attendants, some members of Congress also criticized the TSA proposals. Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey gathered 30 cosponsors for a bill to overrule the TSA. And some 133 House members signed a letter to Pistole asking him to change the policy, Politico reported. House Homeland Security ranking member Bennie Thompson (D) of Mississippi, who spearheaded the letter-writing effort, told Politico that “a knife 2.36 inches long is a weapon.”

Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, who opposed TSA’s plan, said the agency’s reversal was an admission “that permitting knives on planes is a bad idea.” He told the AP that he favored a permanent ban.

In a breakfast meeting with reporters hosted by the Monitor on March 26, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano defended the new TSA policy on knives, while acknowledging the rollout could have been handled better.

“I think frankly it is the right decision from a security standpoint. We're trying to prevent a bomb from getting on a plane. And if you are talking about a small knife, there are already things on a plane that somebody can convert into a small, sharp object. From a security standpoint it is the right decision,” said Secretary Napolitano, whose department includes the TSA.

But she added, “Where we could have done better quite frankly was a little more legislative and public outreach before we announced the decision. Try to give it a softer landing as it were.”

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