The U.S. Transportation Security Administration, under pressure from airline executives, unions, lawmakers, and its own employees, reversed a plan to end a decade-long ban on carrying pocket knives onto U.S. airliners.
Administrator John Pistole is backing off his plan to lift the knife ban after a month of meetings with industry stakeholders, some of whom have cited the Sept. 11, 2001 hijackers' use of box cutters as weapons.
The decision to retain the knife ban was confirmed in a TSA statement e-mailed today by spokesman David Castelveter.
"The flight attendants were right to push back hard on the issue, and the CEOs were right to join hands with the flight attendants," William Swelbar, an aviation research engineer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in an e-mail. "Maybe common sense is breaking out in the halls of government."
The policy, announced in March, would have eased restrictions on carrying on knives with blades less than 2.36 inches long, as well as hockey sticks and golf clubs. The agency had justified the change as an attempt to match U.S. rules with those in other parts of the world and better reflect intelligence on active terrorist threats.
The House has been debating a spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the TSA. Representatives Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who is running for the Senate, and Michael Grimm, a New York Republican, said in a statement they still intend to offer an amendment that would cut off funding for TSA to implement a change in the knives policy.
The lawmakers had sent a letter to Pistole two weeks ago signed by 145 members of Congress urging him to keep current rules in place.
One of the most prominent lawmakers to support lifting the knife ban is Representative Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. He said he understood the decision to abandon the policy given the opposition.
"He screwed up on that one," the Texas Republican said of Pistole. "The flight attendants have a legitimate complaint."
Pistole delayed the planned April 25 implementation of the change following the detonation of two bombs at the Boston Marathon. The explosions killed three people and wounded more than 200.
He reversed his decision after meeting with groups such as flight-attendant and screeners unions, which had said the TSA didn’t follow rule-making procedures and left them out of the decision-making process.
Opponents of the knives policy change, including a coalition of five unions representing 90,000 flight attendants, said Pistole showed sound judgment in dropping the proposal.
"The result is better security policy and the assurance that our nation's aviation security system continues to be vigilant for knives that could be used in a terrorist attack or criminal act against passengers or crew," said Veda Shook, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants union.
Executives from Delta Air Lines, AMR Corp. and US Airways Group Inc. criticized the change as unions representing flight attendants, pilots, and screeners lobbied Congress for a reversal.
"This is good news for Delta people and customers, including Delta's flight attendants who, together with Delta Chief Executive Officer Richard Anderson, lobbied Congress and sent more than 3,000 emails to government officials and lawmakers raising safety concerns about the proposed change," Trebor Banstetter, a Delta spokesman, said in an e-mail.
American is pleased the agency "heard the concerns of our people and customers and reconsidered," company spokeswoman Andrea Huguely said in an e-mailed statement.
The Fort Worth, Texas-based company looks forward to continued collaboration with TSA on security, she said.
US Airways is pleased the ban will remain, spokeswoman Michelle Mohr said.
Senators from New York and New Jersey introduced a bill May 22 to reinstate the knife ban, with New York Democrat Charles Schumer calling the policy change "dangerous."
In a statement today, Schumer said backing off the knives policy change would allow TSA officers to focus "on more important things" than sorting out good knives from bad according to blade length.
"It seemed obvious to most travelers and airline employees that the decision to allow knives on planes was wrong," Schumer said. "We're glad the TSA, after further review and input, has seen it our way."
Appearing at a March 14 House hearing, Pistole said the agency needed to revise its procedures as threats change. He also told lawmakers the agency's primary responsibility is to prevent catastrophes, not police unruly passenger behavior.
Pistole drew initial support from some House Republicans including McCaul, former House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica of Florida, and Representative Richard Hudson of North Carolina, chairman of the subcommittee overseeing the TSA.
While backing Pistole, Hudson chided him on the process he used in the original decision, saying more outreach with industry stakeholders was needed. Representative Bennie Thompson, senior Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, agreed in a statement today.
"When established processes for creating policy are followed, common sense prevails," Thompson said. "In the future, I hope that TSA continues to keep the safety and security of both the passengers and crewmembers a priority."
The American Federation of Government Employees, representing more than 45,000 TSA security officers, one of nine organizations that petitioned the agency in May to rescind the decision, said keeping the knife ban will maintain safe working conditions at screening lines.
"In addition to the lessons learned on 9/11 about the threat of terrorists armed with knives, our concern is for our members who are assaulted far too often by irate passengers," Cox said. “Keeping the knife ban will help keep those confrontations from escalating.”
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