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Knives on planes? TSA chief, defending policy, gets an earful in Congress

The TSA chief, testifying before a House Homeland Security subcommittee, said allowing small knives on planes would keep flights safe while the agency focuses on the threat from explosives.

A new federal policy to allow pocketknives in airplane cabins drew criticism in Congress Thursday, as some lawmakers joined flight attendants and others in questioning the security change.

John Pistole, the administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, defended the policy shift, saying loosened standards would keep flights safe while allowing TSA personnel to focus their screening on the real threat – explosives.

A number of lawmakers voiced skepticism, however, as Mr. Pistole testified before the transportation subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee.

“Why now?” asked Rep. Eric Swallwell (D) of California, citing the success that current screening practices have had since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

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“These can cause a terrible tragedy,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D) of Texas, pointing to pictures of open pocketknives. She said the policy should go “back to the drawing table.”

The new carry-on standards, announced earlier this month, will allow passengers to board planes carrying small pocketknives and some sports items such as a souvenir baseball bat or a golf club.

“This decision aligns TSA with International Civil Aviation Organization standards and our European counterparts,” the agency said in announcing the shift, which goes into effect April 25.

Pistole said the change is part of the agency’s “risk-based” approach to combating terrorism. Terrorists “remain focused” on attacking aircraft, he said. But the evidence from intelligence and from attempted attacks suggests their method of choice involves non-metallic improvised explosives.

The new policy on knives, however, has sparked outcries from many airline workers and groups connected to the industry.

The Association of Professional Flight Attendants, for one, is backing a “no knives on planes” petition.

“Had agency officials consulted with Flight Attendants, they likely would have come to a different conclusion regarding these items,” the group says on its website.

Doug Parker, chief executive of US Airways, wrote a letter on March 11 to Pistole asking him to reconsider the policy, complaining of a lack of input from the industry and saying that the change “might place our flight attendants’ safety at risk.”

At the hearing Thursday, as he responded to a question on whether industry personnel had meaningful input in the process, Pistole said, “I could have done a better job.”

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He said he had notified a senior member of the flight attendants’ association of the possible change back in November. He added that federal air marshals were closely involved in the process.

Pistole also said that the TSA is focused on preventing terrorist attacks, not assessing potential risks posed by passengers who might be drunk or mentally ill.

He added that not all small knives are allowed under the new policy – and showed pictures with examples of those still banned. Pistole said that since the 9/11 attacks, no attacks have occurred on planes involving permitted items such as small scissors or knitting needles.