How do flight attendants feel about allowing passengers to carry little knives on board? Well, I can always depend on Rene Foss, a flight attendant for more than 25 years, to get right to the point.
“We’re not going to be starting to serve steaks again,” Foss said. “Why in the world would a passenger need a knife?”
Foss is the author of the 2002 memoir “Around the World in a Bad Mood: Confessions of a Flight Attendant.” I spoke with her about the recent announcement by the Transportation Security Administration that passengers will be able to carry small pocketknives onto airplanes.
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“The general buzz among flight attendants with any length of time in the business is, it makes everything on the aircraft more vulnerable — passengers and crew. And it’s not like there have been passenger complaints about knives,” she said. “Yes, people say they want to be on their cellphones or other electronic devices constantly, and there’s an outcry over checked bags and carry-on space. But in the past 11 years, I haven’t heard one person say, ‘You know, air travel stinks because I can’t bring a knife on board anymore.’”
Still, effective April 25, the security agency said, passengers may carry on board pocketknives with blades less than 2.36 inches long, as well as corkscrews and various sports equipment, including ski poles, hockey sticks, billiard cues and golf clubs (“limit two” on those golf clubs, the TSA says.)
These revisions in the prohibited items list reflect the TSA’s evolving strategy of focusing more on identifying terrorists with bombs and less on things in carry-on bags like small pocketknives or, say, hockey sticks. Every day, the TSA says, about 2,000 pocketknives are found and taken from passengers, a process that takes two to three minutes each time at security checkpoints.
At a congressional hearing last week, John S. Pistole, the TSA administrator, said that given fortified cockpit doors, more sophisticated terrorist watch lists and “the demonstrated willingness of passengers to intervene in a determined way, it is the judgment of many security experts worldwide, which I agree with, that a small pocketknife is simply not going to result in catastrophic failure of an aircraft.”
The reaction from the aviation industry was swift. The Flight Attendants Union Coalition said that the nearly 90,000 flight attendants it spoke for were “outraged.” Along with some pilots unions and a few major airlines, the coalition is demanding a reversal of the new policy.
“We are the last line of defense in aviation security,” the coalition’s statement said.
Largely unheard from, incidentally, are passengers — probably because passengers have no real public representation in aviation matters. But let’s not forget that while flight crews are certainly a bulwark against threats, passengers themselves now form a solid defense. It was passengers, for example, who thwarted the attempt by Richard Reid to ignite explosives in his shoe on a flight bound for Miami in December 2001.
In the shoe-bomber case and in others, explosives were the threat. But is there a viable threat from a 2 1/2-inch pocketknife — if we define threat as a potential terrorist attack that could bring down an airplane, or allow a cockpit to be breached and an airplane commandeered, as on Sept. 11?
At a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Transportation Security on Thursday, Pistole defended the security agency’s revisions as a move to “apply more common sense to aviation security” and reduce “the hassle factor that TSA has come to represent.”
He pointed out that in 2010, international aviation authorities changed the rules to “permit knives with a blade length of 6 centimeters” (about 2.36 inches) in cabins on flights not originating in the United States. Since then, “we not aware of a single incident involving these small knives on commercial aircraft,” Pistole said.
He said similar concerns were expressed in 2005 when the TSA revised the prohibited items list to allow small scissors, knitting needles and screwdrivers less than 7 inches long onto planes. Since then, “we’ve had billions of passengers — 620 million a year traveling in the U.S. with these items permissible — and there has not been a single incident involving an attack on passengers, flight crews, federal air marshals, anybody,” Pistole said.
Of course, emotions understandably can run high in discussions of terrorist threats. Security experts routinely refer to what they call the “what if” problem inherent in the TSA’s stated efforts to improve its evaluation of risks rather than focusing just on items like pocketknives.
What-if situations can be endless. Obviously, one way to thwart all conceivable threats from passengers would be to require everyone to fly naked and without any possessions. But even then, some what-ifs can be imagined.
But here’s a what-if that the TSA might have considered before this latest imbroglio. What if the agency, which had a group spend two years assessing the changes, had thought to include flight attendants in that review?
“I could have done a better job of bringing them in earlier,” Pistole conceded.
Not to mention the flying public itself.