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Why the TSA is no longer going to let knives on airplanes
The Transportation Security Administration says it is temporarily postponing its controversial rule change, but isn't saying for how long
According to one survey, nearly three-quarters of us want all knives barred from airplanes.
According to one survey, nearly three-quarters of us want all knives barred from airplanes. ALEXANDER DEMIANCHUK/Reuters/Corbis
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ack in March, Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole announced that, starting this Thursday, April 25, passengers would be able to carry small pocket knives, plus a handful of long pieces of sporting equipment (baseball bats, hockey sticks), on commercial flights for the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Late Monday, the TSA reversed itself, saying it is postponing what turned out to be a controversial rule change. "The TSA calls this a temporary delay," says Jay Blackman at NBC News, "but has not decided on a new implementation date." Some powerful players, including Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and the 90,000-strong Flight Attendants Union Coalition, want the delay to be permanent.

This is how a TSA spokesman explained the change:

In order to accommodate further input from the Aviation Security Advisory Committee, which includes representatives from the aviation community, passenger advocates, law enforcement experts, and other stakeholders, TSA will temporarily delay implementation of changes to the Prohibited Items List.... This timing will enable TSA to incorporate the ASAC's feedback about the changes to the Prohibited Items List and continue workforce training. [TSA, via WSJ]

That's the TSA's rationale for public consumption, says AvioNews. But "it is very probable... that the criticism the agency has received, together with the worries generated by the terrorist attach at the Boston Marathon... have had a role in the decision to postpone the implementation of the new rules."

Indeed, the TSA's postponement is pretty much what many critics were asking Pistole to do, says Josh Hicks at The Washington Post. At least those on Capitol Hill. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, got 132 other House members to sign a letter to Pistole urging him to suspend the rule change. That's important, Thompson wrote, "so we can have a sensible security policy with stakeholder buy-in."

Of course, not everyone is pleased. Pistole, a former No. 2 at the FBI, should have stuck to his guns, says Scott McCartney at The Wall Street Journal. It's "apparently unsettling to some," but allowing small knives on airplanes "makes logical sense and brings the United States into closer alignment with international security standards."

Since hardened, locked cockpit doors were installed and pilots were instructed to stay behind locked doors when trouble surfaces, it seems impossible someone could hijack a plane with a small Swiss Army knife or hockey stick. If there's an assault in the cabin, the plane lands and police and the FBI deal with an attacker....

The reaction to the easing of rules seems like knee-jerk derision of TSA.... The airplane cabin is a stressful place and "air rage" does happen — it's a serious concern for flight attendants. But TSA's job is to prevent planes from being destroyed or commandeered as weapons. The agency needs to be focusing on bombs and guns, not pocketknives. [Wall Street Journal]

Maybe that last point is why the TSA ran into trouble with its pretty anodyne rule change. In a mostly online survey by Travel Leaders Group, 73 percent of respondents oppose allowing any knives on airplanes, and 62 percent are satisfied with the current level of airport security. And the Flight Attendants Union Coalition is unlikely to loosen its opposition to allowing knives in the cabin.

Still, as the TSA said in March, its primary mission is to "stop a terrorist from bringing down an airplane," with passenger safety a "tangential or residual benefit of the things we do."

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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