Facing stiff opposition from within the airline industry and scrutiny from Congress, last month, the Transportation Security Administration tabled its proposed policy to allow knives back onto aircraft. But the delay was only temporary, and agency Administrator John Pistole has remained vague about any plans to revive the proposal. Industry observers say it could be quietly re-implemented as soon as Memorial Day weekend.
That could affect passengers and personnel at San Francisco International Airport, which serves 38 airlines operating about 582 flights per week out of its terminals and was the destination of two of the four flights hijacked on 9/11.
Sara Nelson, international vice president of the Association of Flight Attendants, has emerged as a vocal critic of the knife proposal, calling it “dangerous” and “overreaching.” Nelson is part of a loose coalition of air marshals, pilots, passengers, law enforcement agencies, airport gate security screeners, and 9/11 victims’ family members who’ve filed a petition and promised “legal action” if the knife policy goes through. Nine organizations representing 400,000 airline employees have chimed in. Attorney Robert S. Clayman will represent them in any lawsuits that flare up if the new rules are ratified.
But even that critical mass might be stymied by a powerful knife lobby, whose members persuaded the TSA that a 2.4-inch blade should pass muster, even if a bottle of shampoo cannot. In March, the TSA yielded to those demands, drafting a policy change that would allow passengers to carry small pocketknives into airline cabins. Pistole contended that it would save hundreds of hours that airport screeners waste daily confiscating knives from carry-on bags. It would also bring U.S. airline policy in line with that of the European Union.
Doug Ritter, founder and chairman of the Arizona-based advocacy group Knife Rights Inc., insists that a few “commonsense changes” would “free up overburdened TSA [employees] to real threats like bombs.” He equated the current anti-knife movement with previous campaigns against scissors and knitting needles. Knife Rights and similar groups such as the American Tool and Knife Institute represent a far-reaching, lucrative industry, with a purported $5.9 billion impact on the U.S. economy, according to Knife Rights’ own statistics.
Nelson and others worry that the industry’s political clout will dwarf concerns over airline passenger safety. Transportation Security Administration spokesman Nico Melendez wouldn’t offer a revised date for the policy change, but suggested, in statements to the media, that the agency hasn’t reversed course.
“The [delay] will enable TSA to incorporate the Aviation Security Advisory Committee’s feedback about changes to the prohibited items list,” he said, adding that it would also provide ample time for workforce training.