Knives on the Plane

By Robert Mark on April 29th, 2009

New Yorkers often stand as a national litmus test of just how tough Americans can be in a crisis. The weeks and months after 9/11 showed us that even they have their limits although most found a place somewhere to bury those ugly days.

In just a few seconds Monday, however, thousands were brought face-to-face with the reality of another large jet again circling Manhattan when the Air Force flew a 747 down low near the island. With an F16 in tow, you couldn’t blame anyone whose brain was instantly transported back September 11th. boeing over ny 2

Apparently all sorts of government agencies knew about the flight. They all just somehow forgot to share that information with the rest of us. The Air Force and the White House seem to have taken the brunt of the finger pointing.

Lost in the conversation however, was any mention of where the Department of Homeland Security’s multi-billion dollar Transportation Security Administration was during the planning of the flight. What were they thinking? Or perhaps more importantly, were they thinking about the millions of citizens around New York at all. It’s TSA’s job to make us safe, right. At the magic 100 day point in the new administration, the TSA is still without an administrator, just like the FAA.

Lord knows that as a business aviation user and advocate, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is not high on my list of folks to be cooped up with for very long. The agency’s most recent attacks on our industry, the Large Aircraft Security Proposal (LASP), for instance, would demand that all forms of aviation security look like that of the airlines even though the two business models are completely different. At least one senior official in Senator Durbin’s office told me he thinks the 7000 + comments received about LASP probably stunned the leaderless TSA, at least for the time being. But there is much more to aviation security than beating up on business aviation, at least I hope so.

TSA Public Relations Games

Tens of billions of tax dollars have been spent keeping the American flying public safe, or at least making the American public think they are safer than they were on 9/11.

Just take a look at the junk – even weapons – the TSA folks confiscate from airline passengers in a given week and we’d all agree that some good has been done since 2002. Then again, they also grab tons of really dangerous items, like water bottles, tubes of Crest and all sorts of hair gel, simply because the tubes are larger than three ounces. Someone tried to build a bomb on an airplane using big bottles of liquid and gel so TSA figured little bottles were OK. I can’t imagine what will happen when someone gets caught with potentially lethal underwear some day. This TSA thinking, or the lack of it, at frightens me and apparently quite a few other people.

Last month, the Government Accountability Office (oh I do like these guys sometimes) released a report that seriously questioned whether anyone with their head screwed on straight was still working at the TSA, at least when it comes to assessing real transportation risks (refer to the LASP paragraph above for more information). With all the hubbub about Mr. Obama’s first performance review pending, it didn’t see much press.

The GAO acknowledged what we all know, that TSA can’t protect every transportation asset all the time. They need a solid risk mitigation system to identify and prioritize the actions the agency takes tied together with regular evaluation to make sure the situations haven’t changed.

Knives on the Plane

Imagine my surprise when aboard an American Airlines Triple 7 a few weeks back when I was offered a metal knife and fork to eat my din din, not 10 feet from the secure cockpit door we’re always told not to congregate near lest we be thought to be bad guys. Until this flight, I thought everyone had been pretty much cleaned out of their weapons before they entered the cabin.silverware Here they were giving them back.

I spoke to a couple of the flight attendants who were pretty angry about this change to the TSA guidelines. There was no fanfare about the rearming of passengers either, no news releases. “The stuff just showed back up one day when I came to work,” one attendant told me.

What happened to TSA’s risk assessment process that made them decide that 7 1/2 year after 9/11, metal knives on board were no longer a risk, but Crest is? The three-ounce rules exists to make people feel safe, not because it is safe. TSA also allows four-inch pointy metal scissors in carry on bags. Box cutters are bad, but four-inch blades are OK?TSA has also decided a seven-inch screwdriver is OK too? Feeling safer now folks?

Talk to flight attendants and they’ll tell you they don’t like the blades, the knives and the tubes, but they’ll also connect the dots in a way TSA hasn’t. Flight attendants think that the tubes are silly because ten people with ten tubes each can meet up on an airplane and still concoct something terrible if they want to.

IMs on the Plane

I told one flight attendant I couldn’t tell what made me more angry, that some numbskull at TSA had arbitrarily decided knives and sharp scissors were OK and Crest wasn’t or that most of us probably didn’t know they decided to change the policy.

Then this nice lady told me what really scared her on the airplane … wireless Internet access. Her reasoning was simple. With wireless, people on-board the aircraft can easily IM each other and coordinate almost any action they want, like bringing all the tubes together in one part of the cabin, or “grabbing the flight attendant in First Class when she comes around the corner.” When I thought about wireless, I only thought about catching up on my e-mail.

The first time I said the TSA operated as if it were on autopilot a few months back, the remark was meant to be tongue in cheek. Now I think I had it right. Why did the GAO never suggest that TSA talk to the people actually operating the airplanes to gather data before they made any of these silly decisions. How different might flying be today if they did?

TSA will have an administrator one of these days I’m sure. I doubt that will make us feel any safer.

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5 Responses to “Knives on the Plane”

  1. Jess Sightler Says:

    Knives on an airplane are reasonable. We can’t keep knives (shivs) out of prisons, and it is unreasonable to expect that we will be able to on an aircraft. Aircraft security must be based upon the presumption that knives will be readily available to an attacker.

    Wireless internet is irrelevant. Unless you think they should actively jam communications (probably impractical anyway for a host of reasons), the attackers would simply use mesh networking instead of internet based coordination. It’d probably be more reliable anyway.

    None of this is a defense of the TSA, though. They have considered the possibility of people combining their less than three ounce tubes, and supposedly have plans to deal with that. These plans are obviously secret (ie, flawed).

  2. Jeff Reich Says:

    The TSA and IRS seem more useless to me. I can’t help to think the U.S. would be money ahead with a flat tax and dropping federal security measures for airlines. You may recall the email that was circulating soon after 9/11; it was supposed to have been written by a cargo airline pilot who had been a police officer. The pilot’s message was to drop security measures all together. He then suggested that you imagine a suspicious person moving toward the cockpit door and the subsequent clicking and snapping of weapons as they were being cocked by the armed passengers. His argument was that the threat of armed passengers would be the best deterrent.
    His idea may have been extreme, but imagine if the only security was that driven by the competition for airline customers. Ideally the security measures that would culminate would be those which were necessary to draw passengers trusting of that airline. Granted this would likely also be met with some poor security – would it be worse than what we have?

  3. Zach Sielaff Says:

    The worst part about the whole liquid ban thing is, to me, that they did it based off of the wrong incident. The whole “binary explosive” nonsense in the UK seemed to be more of a fantasy than a reality, while Ramzi Yousef (the man who bombed the WTC in 1993) actually did detonate a liquid bomb on board a Phillippine Air 747, and the only reason it wasn’t destroyed was because the center fuel tank happened to be one row aft of where he thought it would be. That incident occurred in 1994, and utilized a bottle of contact lens solution to conceal the explosive, bottles which are still allowed to this day regardless of their size. Based on everything I’ve seen, TSA serves no purpose other than to make things look secure, whether they’re actually secure or not.

  4. Norman Says:

    Good point you make about balance and consistency Rob. The people who generate the lists and policy’s are the ones to swing from a lamp-post, the TSA guys are just doing their job (in relation to what is and is not allowed to be carried and how) and will lose it if they use their common sense, discretion or pragmatism.

    We (in the UK) can’t take (flight crew) family on the flight deck even though they present no risk whatever – you might argue that there are then more people to lrave for a pee and such like but… sigh! – when does the stupidity stop?

  5. Bo Henriksson Says:

    An organized and dedicated group of terrorists WILL bring an airplane down given enough time and resources. That’s just a simple matter of statistics.
    They only have to get it right once.
    We have to get it right every time!
    99.999 % of flight crew will go through their career without suffering a terrorist event. However, dealing with disturbed and mentally unstable passengers is fairly common. I think it would be common sense that you minimize access to anything that could be used as a weapon such as knives. Although the cockpit won’t be breached the lives of passengers and flight attendants could be at stake.

    TSA is an embarrassment to this country.

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