Janet Napolitano answers critics of new TSA rules for knives on airplanes

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano uses humor to address questions about the storm of criticism over new, less restrictive rules for allowing passengers to carry knives onto airplanes.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
Janet Napolitano, secretary of Homeland and Security, speaks at a Monitor-hosted breakfast for reporters in Washington, D.C., Tuesday.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano quoted a "Saturday Night Live" comedian when she was asked about a storm of criticism of new, less restrictive rules for carrying knives onto airplanes.

"It is kind of like Gilda Radner, you know, if it is not one thing, it’s another,” the secretary said about those who criticized the announcement earlier this month by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) that it would allow small knives to be carried onto airplanes beginning in April.

“Frankly it is the right decision from a security standpoint,” Ms. Napolitano said Tuesday at a Monitor-hosted breakfast for reporters. “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."

Under rules slated to take effect April 25, knives with blades that are 2.36 inches or shorter and less than a half inch wide will be allowed in airline cabins as long as the blade is not fixed or does not lock into place. Hockey sticks and golf clubs will also be allowed.

Critics include the airline industry trade association, Airlines for America, which issued a statement saying additional discussion is warranted before the rules take effect. The plan was also criticized by Richard Anderson, chief executive officer of Delta Airlines, and several members of Congress including New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer. 

Napolitano said the TSA, which is part of her sprawling department, could have handled the announcement of the new rules more effectively. “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,” she said.

But she indicated no change in the new rules is likely given the department's goal of having security measures based on an assessment of the risks facing the nation. "I have told the [TSA] director that if we are moving to risk based, that means risk based. And sometimes people are going to be unhappy with those decisions, but in the end we think we preserve security and facilitate just normal travel,” Napolitano said.

In a speech last month at the Brookings Institution, the secretary said that by the end of 2013 the TSA hopes that 1 in 4 airline passengers will qualify for expedited screening, up from 1 in 12 last year.

“Get your global entry card,” she quipped at the Monitor breakfast. Global Entry is a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) program that offers expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival in the United States.

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