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Knives on airplanes test TSA’s mission

The Transportation Security Administration’s decision to allow pocket knives on airliners was meant to signal a philosophical shift: Focus less on screening everyone for everything and more on terrorist threats.

Its move has instead sparked condemnation from executives of Delta Air Lines, AMR Corp. and US Airways Group; unions representing flight attendants, pilots and airport screeners; and members of the Federal Air Marshals Service. TSA officials were scheduled to testify yesterday at a hearing of the House Homeland Security subcommittee.

The debate gets to the heart of the agency’s mission. Is it supposed to make flying as safe as possible? Or should it concede that it can’t prevent everything and focus on stopping Sept. 11-like terrorist attacks using planes?

“It’s a mixed signal,” said Jeff Addicott, director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas. “You have a 90-year-old grandma,
you’re going to strip-search her, and then you’re going to allow someone to carry on a knife? They’re not consistent in their approach toward security.”

J. David Cox Sr., who represents about 45,000 agency employees as national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said the TSA gave the union less than an hour’s notice before making the knife policy change public.

The agency’s screeners think airport lines will clog as they argue with passengers over whether a knife is longer than 2.36 inches – the maximum length allowed – or the handle is molded, Cox said. He said the backlash could have been avoided by including the union in discussions before settling on the new policy, which takes effect April 25.

“There’s a lot of rage in the world,” Cox said. “We just don’t believe you need knives within the cabin of an airplane.”

Versions of what-was-TSA-thinking have been articulated often since the policy was announced. A petition on Change.org, “TSA: DO NOT allow knives on airplanes!” has garnered more than 10,000 signatures. A similar petition on the White House’s website, started by a coalition of flight attendant unions, has picked up more than 29,000 in a week.

“Before the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the threat of using commercial aircraft as a weapon was unknown,” the petition reads. “We know better today. The TSA was created because blades on airplanes were used to cause this deadly attack.”

Armed with box cutters, the Sept. 11 terrorists hijacked airliners and then flew them into New York’s World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. Box cutters remain banned. TSA Administrator John Pistole said March 5 there’s “just too much emotion associated with them.”

Knives on planes are a demonstrated danger, not an emotional issue, said Diane Horning, whose son, Matthew Horning, was killed at the World Trade Center in the Sept. 11 attacks. The TSA’s action “shows revisionist history at its worst,” Horning said in a statement.

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