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US airline staff oppose plan to allow small knives on planes

Flight crews, pilots and air marshals join growing protest against TSA plans to allow pen knives and sporting goods in cabins

American flight attendants, pilots, air marshals and insurance companies are part of a growing opposition to plans to allow passengers to carry small knives and sports equipment, such as souvenir baseball bats and golf clubs, on to planes.

The Flight Attendants Union Coalition, which represents nearly 90,000 air stewards, said it was co-ordinating a nationwide legislative and public education campaign to reverse the policy announced by the Transportation Security Administration this week. A petition posted by the flight attendants on the White House's website urging the administration to tell the TSA to keep knives off planes had more than 9,300 signatures by Friday morning.

"Our nation's aviation system is the safest in the world thanks to multilayered security measures that include prohibition on many items that could pose a threat to the integrity of the aircraft cabin," the coalition, which is made up of five unions, said in a statement. "The continued ban on dangerous objects is an integral layer in aviation security and must remain in place."

Jon Adler, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, whose 26,000 members include federal air marshals, complained that he and other "stakeholders" were not consulted by TSA before the "counter-safety policy" was announced. He said the association would ask Congress to block the policy change.

The Coalition of Airline Pilot Associations, which represents 22,000 pilots, said it opposed allowing knives of any kind in airliner cabins.

"We believe the [terrorism] threat is still real and the removal of any layer of security will put crew members and the flying public unnecessarily in harm's way," Mike Karn, the coalition's president, said.

The policy, which comes into effect on 25 April, permits folding knives with blades that are 60mm (2.36in) or less in length and are less than 12.7mm wide. The policy is aimed at allowing passengers to carry pen knives, corkscrews with small blades and other small knives.

Passengers will also be allowed to include in their carry-on luggage novelty-sized baseball bats less than 610mm long, toy plastic bats, billiard cues, ski poles, hockey sticks, lacrosse sticks and two golf clubs. Items such as box cutters and razor blades are still prohibited.

There has been a gradual easing of some of the security measures applied to airline passengers after the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

The new policy conforms US security standards to international standards and would allow the TSA to concentrate its energies on more serious safety threats, the agency said when it announced the change. The change was based on a recommendation from an internal TSA working group, which decided the items represented no real danger, it said.

A TSA spokesman said the presence on flights of gun-carrying pilots travelling as passengers, federal air marshals and airline crew members trained in self-defence provide additional layers of security to protect against misuse of the newly allowed items.

Not all flights, however, have federal air marshals or armed pilots on board.

The policy has triggered a debate over the mission of the TSA and whether it is supposed to concentrate exclusively on preventing terrorists from hijacking or blowing up planes, or whether it should also help protect passengers and crews from unruly and sometimes dangerous passengers.

"The charter, the mission of TSA is to stop an airplane from being used as a weapon and to stop catastrophic damage to that aircraft," said David Castelveter, a spokesman for the agency, adding: "These small knives, these baseball bats, these sporting items aren't going to contribute to bringing an airplane down."

In era of reinforced cockpit doors and passengers who have shown a willingness to intervene, the threat from terrorism had been greatly reduced, said Andrew Thomas, a University of Akron business professor and author of several books on the airline industry and security. Rather, "acts of aberrant, abusive and abnormal passenger behaviour known as air rage remain the most persistent threat to aviation security".

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