Blades on a Plane: Why the TSA Cares More About Mouthwash than Passenger Safety | Console & Hollawell Law Blog
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Blades on a Plane: Why the TSA Cares More About Mouthwash than Passenger Safety

By Richard Console on March 12, 2013

Knives on airplanes. The phrase is like a cataract on a defining, horrific moment in American history. Think about it: every passenger with a knife in their pocket. Each person as potentially armed, potentially dangerous. Have we actually managed to convince ourselves that bladed weapons weren’t the preamble to the single greatest act of terrorism committed on United States soil? That’s myopic thinking, a reduction so absurd that it would be laughable if it weren’t actually happening. I mean it’s ridiculous; who in their right mind would allow blades of any size on aircraft traveling through U.S. skies after September 11, 2001? The Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The very same body tasked with finding and removing contraband items from passengers and their bags would still like to throw away shampoo bottles, but the knives can stay, within reason, of course. This is stunning amnesia, a brain fart the size of a continent.

TSA knives on airplanes Collapsible knives on the wrong side of security screening, meaning the passenger was able to get them past security agents who reportedly confiscated his water bottle, but not the disallowed blades. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).

What’s worse? Knives aren’t the TSA’s biggest problem – it’s all those explosives their agents still fail to find.

A Perfect Storm of New Weapons and Lax Security

The $44 billion in cuts to discretionary budget spending, more popularly known as “the sequester,” include a reduction in the TSA’s coffers for at least 2013. According to CNS News, the chopping effect on TSA’s budget may force a sharp reduction in the number of agents checking bags and performing security screenings. A hiring freeze may also go into effect, along with mandatory eliminations of overtime hours for existing employees not already furloughed. All this adds up to longer lines at airport security checkpoints, and fewer agents to find contraband items. In essence, TSA would like to focus on finding explosives, which necessitates the relaxed knife rules, but plan to do so with fewer agents. Does that sound like an effective strategy for protecting passengers and flight crews across the country?

TSA security checkpoint DenverScreening at Denver International Airport could shrink substantially in the aftermath of deep federal spending cuts. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).

The loosened security screenings could allow contraband knives, with longer blades and molded grips, to slip through the lines and get on planes. It’s not as though passengers will all of a sudden begin carrying their knives onto aircraft, they’ve been trying all along. The TSA isn’t suddenly choosing to open the flood gates; the city is already under water. Consider the following:

  • Blades with 2.36-inch lengths and ½-inch widths are allowed through security checkpoints beginning in April.
  • In 2011, TSA agents confiscated 1,306 guns at U.S. airports, according to NBC News.
  • Full-body scanners, reportedly responsible for catching the majority of contraband items, including ceramic knives, were removed from security checkpoints.
  • In March 2013, an undercover TSA agent was able to pass through two security checkpoints, and survive a pat-down, while carrying a mock security device through Newark International Airport.

Dangerous items found by TSA security agents in 2012 include: chunks of C4 explosive, a live cannonball, training claymore mines, a fully-gassed chainsaw, a spear gun, a grenade launcher, multiple explosive grenades, a handgun in a hollowed-out book, a bazooka round, and warheads. What kind of warheads? TSA isn’t saying.

A focus on finding more explosives is an admirable goal, but it lacks perspective. Terrorists didn’t need explosives in 2001 to hijack three of our passenger aircraft and turn them into weapons of mass destruction. They needed knives, and now they’re back in the cabin. How can we say the main interest is safety when we skimp on the systems in place to keep us safe?

airplane banned items listNew TSA rules mean knives are back on planes, but Hello Kitty is still banned. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).

An Arm’s Race in the Plane Cabin

An unexpected consequence of allowing small blades on passenger aircraft may arrive in the form of a pseudo arm’s race. Are passengers going to need knives on planes now? It’s the same argument the National Rifle Association (NRA) used when defending the rights of gun owners against armed criminals.

“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre famously said in the wake of the tragic shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

The argument takes on a chilling perspective when applied to the cramped quarters of an airplane cabin when a passenger, armed with a knife, decides to attack. Do we need armed flight crews to defend passengers from possibly armed assailants? Are airlines prepared to give weapons to the men and women servicing their aircraft every day?

Flight attendant security training Flight attendants may be at a severe disadvantage trying to subdue a violent passenger armed with a knife. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).

Wrestling a blade away from anyone presents a significant risk of harm. Successfully disarming a knife-wielding opponent without suffering wounds in the process requires extensive combat training – not something we see from average air travelers. Flight crews receive self-defense classes as part of licensing requirements, but that does not include martial arts. Nervousness in aircrafts could lead to rising tensions and unsafe escalations of violence. If flight attendants and pilots have to assume passengers may be carrying weapons that could hurt them, how can they respond effectively to protect others?

“We don’t receive that much training in dealing with violent passengers,” said one Republic Airlines flight attendant. “I have no idea what to do with a knife attack. When I took this job, worrying about people with knives wasn’t on my radar. I don’t want to think about getting stabbed when I go to work.”

Anxious opinions and outrage are commonplace throughout flight attendants and air marshals who say TSA’s new policy on knives only hampers the protection process. Flight crews have severe restrictions on the types of self-defense items they can keep on them during travel – none.

“I can get fired on the spot for carrying pepper spray or anything like that,” our flight attendant, speaking on condition of anonymity, said. “Flight attendants are the last line of defense between the cabin and the cockpit door. We don’t open it for any reason. How am I supposed to do my job when a guy with a knife can cut my phone lines to the cockpit and damage wiring inside the plane? It’s scary.”

She has more concerns than just the aircraft’s safety. There’s also the alcohol flight attendant’s serve to passengers. On long cross-country flights, she said issues can come up from having to cut off passengers who’ve had one too many and are belligerent.

Airplane alcoholic beveragesIndividual servings of liquor used by flight attendants on airplanes. Having to serve alcohol passengers who could have weapons on them may raise the stakes onboard to unnecessary levels. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).

“I don’t want some alcoholic pulling a knife out because he can’t get his mini,” she said. “Some crews have been followed after they deplane, guys stalking them back to their hotels. We want to put knives in their hands now? And what about flights where there’s only one flight attendant? What are they supposed to do? We need answers.”

Air marshals are not present on every domestic or international flight coming and going from U.S. airports. These law enforcement agents, who carry handguns, can obviously quell a knife attack much faster than a flight attendant armed with a pot of boiling water. However, steep budget cuts in the aftermath of the sequester may make it impossible to place officers on even a majority of flights.

Are we on our own up there?

The Damage Small Weapons Can Cause

Small blades are by no means harmless.

A casual observer may not believe they have much to fear from a pen knife or other 2-inch blade, but the damage such a weapon can cause can be lethal, and it may only take one stroke. Because the knife is so short, it functions more like a piercing weapon, as opposed to the slashing action of a larger steak knife. A punch that might cause a bruise can now lead to a deep wound with this type of knife gripped between the fingers.

arteries in the bodyArteries move blood directly from the heart to all areas of the body, including organs and limbs. Even a nick to one of these vessels can cause life-threatening amounts of bleeding. Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

Arteries in the neck and groin lie just one to three inches below the skin’s surface, according to Web MD. A single, driven stab into one of these locations can cause massive bleeding leading to death within minutes. On a flight where there’s only one flight attendant between the passengers and the cockpit, are we ready to weaken the integrity of mid-flight security to the point where one stab leads to a hijacking?

But wait, there’s more.

TSA is also allowing souvenir bats up to 24 inches in length and weighing up to 24 ounces in carry-on luggage. They’re also permitting sports equipment, including golf clubs, billiard cues, and hockey sticks. Let’s call those souvenir bats and cue sticks exactly what they are: clubs. A short, easy to wield stick that makes the perfect complement to a small, bladed object. The picture is starting look less like a safe flying experience and more like a Patrick Swayze movie.

Will People Stop Flying?

No. People need planes to travel quickly for business, and until we work out reliable teleportation, air travel is the best game in town. Casual flyers may take less frequent trips, which could result in lower passenger volumes and declining sales. In the face of fewer security agents and increasing numbers of people carrying weapons on flights, lower passenger levels might actually be a good thing.

 airport security linesLook for lines at airport security checkpoints and other spots to increase as federal work furloughs commence in the coming weeks and months. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).

TSA doesn’t appear to be in the mood to back down from its slouching screening requirements. In statements issued in March 2013, they’ve remained committed to their message, touting the need to find the more dangerous items and worry less about individual passenger safety as opposed to keeping the plane in the sky.

Wouldn’t it be nice if they could detect the explosives they claim they’re so interested in finding?

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