TSA’s Revised Prohibited Items List

Today they formally announced that scissors up to four inches in length and screw drivers, wrenches and pliers less than seven inches long will now be allowed in carry-on bags and in pockets. They also announced new procedures regarding pat downs of passengers and random secondary searches will take affect all on December 22nd at the start of the Christmas travel season. Sorry folks, that 1 inch Swiss Army knife on your key chain will still be confiscated if they find it at the screening station. As none of these new rules regarding prohibited items mean anything one way or the other with regard to actual security, it is amazing how much ink and air time have been devoted to the announcement particularly since just a few weeks ago it was disclosed by the General Accountability Office, Congress’ watch dog agency, that the cargo in the cargo hold under the passenger seats is being carried virtually unscreened for explosives with little response from anyone.

Once again the public in general and some in the aviation industry as well, have been hit by a sucker punch. While we focus on the damage that might be caused by a 4 inch cuticle scissor we blithely ignore that half a pound of semtex in the cargo hold of Pan Am 103 took 270 lives. The simple truth is that the items now being allowed on board airliners cannot do as much damage as the plastic knife with the serrated edge packed with my carry on lunch purchased in the Portland airport can. Indeed, I am sorry that TSA did not have the courage of its convictions to allow knives with blades under 4 inches on as well since they too are no more deadly than my plastic one or the metal ones that are being used once again in first-class by some carriers. But after hearing the anguished protests from some groups, including members of congress, to the modest changes that are being made, I can understand TSA’s reluctance to allow anything in the knife category on board.

TSA should be applauded for finally recognizing that items generally carried by the public in public venues that are not classified as weapons per se in state or federal statutes are for the most part not any more dangerous than a rolled-up magazine or a ball point pen and hardly worth the effort expended in confiscating them. The rules promulgated after 9/11 to confiscate anything with a point or sharp edge regardless of size were predictable in the highly charged atmosphere of the time; but certainly after flight decks were secured by impenetrable doors the ability of terrorists to seize an airliner in flight has been neutralized, and to continue to collect pocket items under 4 inches long is a misuse of security personnel and public money – even if the exercise does generate revenue from fines and sales.

Security decisions need to be threat based; rules which prohibit the carriage of items of marginal danger that require thousands of hours to enforce are simply not sound from either a security or public policy view because they are disproportionate to the threat under the circumstances. Commercial aviation is still faced with the very real threat of terrorism from explosives and other weapons of mass destruction that can kill all on board. We haven’t yet solved the problem of shoulder held missiles, unaccounted for in staggering numbers reaching into the hundreds of thousands and available to be deployed around airports. The possibility of suicide bombers in terminals and on ramps on the airside of airports remains to be dealt with. The employment of new technologies that can actually identify an explosive in checked baggage without opening the bag is overdue. Screening the huge workforce with access to baggage, cargo and aircraft still remains undone. But instead, we agonize over 4 inch scissors and 6 inch screwdrivers as though they were a threat that couldn’t be radically reduced by serving fewer martinis on board and providing the promised and long overdue training of cabin crews to deal with the obstreperous passengers who are the only ones likely to even think of misusing them.

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