WASHINGTON -- The nation's aviation security chief says Congress should lift a ban on passengers carrying lighters on airplanes because screeners are spending too much time looking for lighters instead of bombs.
"The lighter ban does not add to security anymore," Transportation Security Administration chief Kip Hawley told USA TODAY on Wednesday. Forcing screeners to confiscate lighters at checkpoints "is a distraction from the serious nature of finding (bomb) components."
Hawley said he has briefed lawmakers and "recommended they consider whether that ban needs to stay."
Congress enacted the ban in late 2004 in response to concerns that a terrorist could light explosives on an airplane, as "shoe bomber" Richard Reid attempted on a trans-Atlantic jetliner in late 2001. The ban took effect in April 2005.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., an author of the ban, said he would listen to arguments in favor of lifting it.
"What the agency (TSA) has to do is show how what it wants to do will make America more secure," he said.
Hawley said the lighter ban hurts aviation security because screeners are "spending time hunting through bags looking for items that are not the serious threat."
The TSA says its screeners confiscate 30,000 lighters a day at checkpoints. Although lighters are just one of 68 items passengers cannot carry on planes, they represent 80% of the confiscated items, the TSA says. Matches are allowed on planes.
Hawley said some passengers try to beat the lighter ban by packing several lighters in their carry-on bags, in the hope that screeners won't find the extras. Screeners will continue to confiscate lighters as long as the ban is in effect, Hawley said. Lifting the ban would require an act of Congress.
Lighters are the only item that Congress has specifically banned, Hawley said. The TSA decides the remaining items barred from an airplane cabin. They include guns, knives, box cutters and baseball bats.
Hawley said lighters "do not represent a particularly effective ignition source for terrorists," who could use other means to detonate a bomb. Last year, Hawley lifted the TSA's ban on scissors and tools less than 7 inches long so screeners could focus on finding bombs.
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