Home Business Airline Industry Discord Emerges Over TSA Knife Policy

Airline Industry Discord Emerges Over TSA Knife Policy

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Ted Reed, Forbes
Special to In Homeland Security

The airline industry’s Washington advocates have been far from consistent in their reaction to the Transportation Security Administration’s move to allow small knives on airplanes, effective April 25.

Initially industry stakeholders initially backed – or at least did not strongly resist – the agency’s proposed change in its regulations. But strong opposition by two flight attendants unions, the Association of Flight Attendants and the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, has inspired most stakeholders to take another look.

TSA Administrator John Pistole has been criticized for not seeking input before the policy was announced on March 5, but on Friday he told a House subcommittee that he had in fact told senior union leaders about the change in advance.

“I could have done a better job of that, not only with the flight attendants,” Pistole told the House Homeland Security Committee Subcommittee on Transportation Safety. “I did notify a senior representative of the flight attendants association on November 30 of my intention to change the list as it involved knives. I also did a similar notification to a senior representative of pilots association after that, and also briefed the homeland security advisory council for the Department of Homeland Security in September of last year on this idea, and got feedback in a closed setting with them.”

Sources indicate that Pistole briefed AFA President Veda Shook and Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Association. But in an e-mail Corey Caldwell, spokeswoman for the AFA, said “Nope, it was not here. The only briefing we got was about 30 minutes before they went public with the decision but even that wasn’t a briefing, just more of a heads up.” ALPA has publicly backed the change.

The initial support for the change reflects broad support for Pistole’s “risk-based approach,” which has included efforts to enable quicker screening for those least likely to be terrorists as well as a focus on non-metallic bombs, which Pistole views as the greatest threat to aviation security. Pistole believes airport screeners will have more time to look for non-metallic bombs if they spent less time looking for objects that will no longer be banned: small knives that don’t lock as well as other sports items including toy baseball bats, billiard cues, ski poles, hockey sticks, lacrosse sticks and golf clubs.

ALPA, in a prepared statement, said that it “supports TSA efforts to streamline security and shift focus to individuals who intend to do harm,” and that “this will standardize TSA policy with the international community. Common sense risk-based security screening initiatives …increase resources for screening so that they focus on the real security threats instead of objects.”

The CEOs of Delta and US Airways, as well as American’s senior vice president, have all written letters expressing support for a risk-based approach but raising questions about the knives.

This appears to have led to a clarification by Airlines For America, the industry lobbying group in Washington.

A4A spokeswoman Jean Medina told The Associated Press on March 9 that:  ”We support the TSA’s approach of combining its vast experience with billions of passenger screenings with thorough risk-based assessments.”  On March 16 A4A provided a prepared statement that said “We actively work with the TSA to build and support risk-based programs.” But the statement continued: “As partners with the TSA, we believe additional discussion is warranted before items that have been banned for more than 11 years are allowed back on aircraft.”

In his letter to Pistole, US Airways president Doug Parker wrote that “seeking input before implementing a change in policy that might place out flight attendants’ safety at risk would have provided a more thoughtful path to the desired outcome of secure and safe air travel.”

Pistole has said he wanted to make sure the flight attendant and pilot unions understood in advance the reasoning leading to his decision, and that he might have done this job better, but he continues to believe the reasoning was sound as the TSA battles terrorism.

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