Knives: Cleared for Takeoff?

As he attended ceremonies in New York honoring the victims of Sept. 11, something beyond the obvious grief nagged at Gordon Haberman.

If it wasnt enough to lose his 25-year-old daughter in the attacks on the World Trade Center, Haberman couldnt understand why the federal government would consider allowing passengers to start carrying razor blades and small knives on planes.

If there is anything that I have learned in the last four years, it is that terrorists are opportunistic, said Haberman of West Bend, Wis. They watch what we are doing and would exploit any relaxation of the rules.

Those rules might change.

The Transportation Security Administration, the federal agency that oversees airline security, is re-examining how it screens the 630 million passengers who board planes each year.

An Aug. 5 memo, prepared by TSA staff and obtained by The Washington Post, has set off an avalanche of criticism across the country because it suggested allowing passengers to carry items such as scissors, ice picks, bows and arrows, razor blades and knives less than 5 inches long.

The proposal also suggested reducing security nuisances such as patdowns and routine shoe removal as passengers go through security. Passengers who set off a metal detector, for example, would still have to remove their shoes under the proposal.

Families of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, some congressmen, pilots and flight attendants have assailed the idea of allowing knives on planes. They say it undermines any improvements made to airline security in the last four years.

I dont think people should carry things on like they did on September 11 and kill people. It doesnt make sense, said Robert Hemenway of Shawnee, whose son, Ronald, was killed when an American Airlines jet slammed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11.

TSA officials would not comment on the memo, but said no decisions had been made about any changes in the prohibited items list. A decision is not expected until later this fall.

The latest re-evaluation came with the arrival of Edmund S. Hawley to head the TSA in his role as assistant secretary of homeland security, said TSA spokeswoman Carrie Harmon. He called for the review in an effort to make security less of a hassle for passengers.

We are constantly looking at our screening procedures and trying to balance high-level security with a high level of customer services, Harmon said.

Harmon stressed that the TSA is trying to collect input from as many different groups as possible, including the airlines, airport managers and others directly affected by the Sept. 11 attacks.

Some groups, like the one that represents more than 20,000 American Airlines flight attendants, have ripped the initial proposal to relax screening regulations. Two American Airlines planes were hijacked on Sept. 11, and 13 American flight attendants were killed.

Its just unimaginable the TSA would consider this, said Lonny Glover, national safety coordinator for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents Americans attendants.

These are things that have no reason or purpose to be brought into the aircraft cabin by a passenger. Why does a passenger need a freakin ice pick?

For the traveling public at Kansas City International Airport, screening is sometimes a hindrance to boarding the plane on time. Some passengers said there are other ways to thwart terrorism than searching for pocket knives.

Heinrich Klinge of Harrisonville travels almost every week and thinks many TSA policies, such as the ban on small knives and scissors, were an overreaction to the terrorist attacks.

He said some of the technology used at airports was a more effective way of fighting terrorism than confiscating certain items.

I am for airport security, he said, but not feel-good security.

Robert Brown of Kansas City agreed. He said sealing the cockpit doors prevents terrorists from overtaking a pilot. Lifting the ban on certain carry-on items would make airport security lines move more quickly, he said.

It doesnt take long here at KCI, he said, but at other airports the wait can be up to two hours.

Other passengers dont want any compromise in security. The more the better, they say.

They should leave it the way it is, said Victoria Fitch of Portland, Ore, as she waited to board a plane in Kansas City. If it prevents an act of terrorism, then this has to be done.

For the 12 months ending Nov. 1, 2004, screeners at KCI collected more than 70,000 items, including 228 box cutters and about 23,000 knives of various sizes.

About 87,000 items were surrendered at KCI for the first eight months of this year, but more than 40,000 of those were lighters, which were banned beginning April 15, Harmon said.

Christopher Bidwell, managing director of security for the Air Transport Association, said the federal review was an attempt to better focus security efforts on passengers who might need additional screening.

What happened after 9/11 is you had just a multitude of additional security measures that just got put in place and there was no real analysis, said Bidwell, whose group is a trade association representing the airline industry.

Theyre really taking an in-depth look at this, saying, Do we really need to be doing certain things based on all the layers of security that we now have that we didnt before?

Over time, the system has improved, Bidwell said. He said some once-banned items, such as blunt-tipped scissors and butter knives, are now allowed on the plane.

Some aviation security experts dont see small blades as the biggest threat facing airplanes anymore. They note that cockpit doors are now reinforced. There are more sky marshals. And passengers are more watchful.

The small tiny knife blade is not the threat that it used to be, said Rich Roth, an aviation security expert and executive director of CTI Consulting of Bethesda, Md. It certainly isnt the threat that it was prior to 9/11.

In the post-9/11 environment, passengers know that if a plane is hijacked they have to do something different, Roth said. Thats a post-9/11 lesson that I think the public has largely absorbed.

K. Jack Riley, a homeland security expert for the Rand Corp., said he would like to see authorities focus their efforts on finding passengers like Richard Reid, the infamous shoe-bomber, trying to smuggle explosives onto aircraft.

I think thats the real threat out there, he said.

What happened on 9/11 wasnt a function of box cutters as it was a surprise to the entire system that people would hijack planes and crash them. They could have just as easily hijacked the plane with any number of implements.

Terry Trippler, a Minneapolis-based airline analyst for www.cheapseats.com said he recognizes the sensitivities to the 9/11 families. But he said the ban on some items, like small scissors, was too overreaching.

Security officials, he said, must draw the line somewhere when defining dangerous weapons. Trippler, however, suggested that some proposals go too far.

I would like for someone from the TSA to explain why anybody needs an ice pick aboard a plane, he said. I know the flight attendants serve a lot of ice with the Diet Pepsis, but is it that much?

Copyright 2005 Associated Press

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