"We believe it will be a very bad idea to allow knives at checkpoints," Jacqueline Simon, policy director for the screeners union, said in an exclusive interview last night.
Simon said the new policy will place screeners in the untenable position of having to visually judge whether the length of a blade exceeds 2.36 inches, or 6 centimeters, with a maximum width of one-half inch. By nature, the knives will have to be unfolded to measure the blade, a potentially time-consuming exercise that in some cases is likely to invite a challenge by the knife’s owner, for example over the definition of "blade."
Simon said experience has already demonstrated that passengers can become irate at checkpoints, and now allowing them to be armed will be a threat to the safety of screeners and passengers.
On top of all that, Simon said, screeners are "subject to a tremendous amount of pressure to keep things moving."
As with the unions representing federal air marshals and airline flight attendants, Simon said the screeners’ union, the American Federation of Government Employees, was not consulted on the change.
"We think it’s very troubling," she said.
A TSA spokesman, David Castleveter, declined to comment on the union’s criticism of the policy, because the agency had not seen the official announcement.
TSA Administrator John Pistole announced last Tuesday that, effective April 25, passengers would be able to carry knives with nonfixed, nonlocking blades as long as 2.36 inches — or 6 centimeters, the current European standard the policy would mirror.
He said he made the decision was based on a staff assessment that the small knives, like the ski poles, hockey sticks and other athletic equipment that will also be permitted next month, would not pose a "catastrophic" threat to the aircraft or its pilots, who are protected by reinforced cockpit doors.
Instead of rummaging through carry-on bags for small knives spotted during an X-ray, Pistole said screeners will be able to focus on explosives, chemical or biological threats. Simon said the rule will have the opposite effect, causing screeners to waste time gauging knives’ lengths.
Pistole will defend the policy on Thursday during a hearing of the House Homeland Security transportation subcommittee.
Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, in an interview last night, joined the growing number of lawmakers questioning the wisdom of the policy. Others are Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass), and at least two members of New Jersey’s House delegation, Rep. Rush Holt (D-12th Dist.), and Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-2nd Dist.), who chairs the House transportation committee’s aviation subcommittee. Menendez wondered with whom Pistole consulted before making the decision, and called it, "counterintutive on a practical level."
"At first glance, this easing of restrictions appears to go beyond our post-9/11 ethos of never forget," Menendez said.
The 9/11 hijackers used box cutters to hijack four airliners. Box cutters remain banned under the new rule.
The relaxed knife rule is part an effort by Pistole, a former FBI agent, to create a risk-based screening process focusing on the types of individuals and weapons that pose the most likely threat. At the same time, Pistole has tried to reduce hassles to low-risk fliers. Initiatives include expansion of the PreCheck voluntary background check program, a decision to let passengers to keep their jackets on and their laptops in cases, and elimination of random patdowns for children.
Apparently, the Obama administration’s latest relaxation of screening rules has made for some strange bedfellows, and some key supporters have been House Republicans.
"I am supportive of TSA focusing on risk-based security measures," said Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), who chairs the Homeland Security transportation subcommittee. "The recent decision to eliminate golf clubs, small knives less than 2.37 inches in length, and ski poles from the prohibited items list is one that I believe balances security with efficiency."
The House Republican who chairs the full Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), also supports the new policy.
Fliers, however, have their doubts.
"It seems a little absurd," 15-year-old Nina Kalkus of Lawrenceville said Monday as she waited for a ride at Newark Liberty International Airport after a trip to Madrid. Malkus said the knives pictured in a TSA illustration looked a lot more menacing than the nail file that screeners had confiscated from her mother before a recent flight.
Martin Lamb, a 44-year-old Belfast man who had just flown into Newark Liberty on business, said no knives are permitted on British flights. Lamb said he understood that small knives and golf clubs might not breach a cockpit door.
But looking at the TSA illustration of the knives, he added, "I think if somebody knows what he’s doing, they can still do a lot of damage with something like that."