WASHINGTON—More than a decade after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Transportation Security Administration is reassessing airline safety with an eye toward identifying the most likely threats.
TSA’s recent decision to permit pocket knives and other formerly banned items on flights tested the agency’s new approach and sparked criticism and praise.
On Thursday, TSA Administrator John Pistole made his first appearance before Congress since last week’s announcement that small knives, golf clubs, hockey sticks and assorted other items were no longer prohibited.
“These are not things that terrorists are intending to use,” Pistole told members of a House Homeland Security subcommittee.
Terrorists who have plotted against the U.S. since 2001 have tried to sneak non-metallic explosives aboard planes, he said. Although those efforts have failed, TSA has tried to update its understanding of those dangerous devices while making the lives of ordinary travelers a little easier.
Over the last 2 1/2 years, TSA has received “hundreds and hundreds” of passenger suggestions to allow small knives and other items aboard flights, Pistole said, so he formed a study group that eventually recommended the recent changes.
At the subcommittee hearing, Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., questioned Pistole’s rationale, brandishing a golf club for emphasis.
Under the new regulations, passengers can bring two golf clubs aboard planes, as well as folding knives with blades that are no more than 2.36 inches long and less than half an inch wide.
“How did we come to decide on two golf clubs, rather than three, four or one?” Thompson asked.
Pistole said the decisions had come from the working groups that studied the matter.
Other Democratic lawmakers expressed concerns for the safety of flight attendants and pilots, who have voiced opposition to TSA’s proposal.
Pistole said Congress ordered the agency to screen for explosives that could bring down planes, not protecting individual flight attendants and passengers.
Republican members tended to support the proposal, saying reduced screening could save money.
“It’s been a long time coming, but it’s very welcome,” Richard Hudson, R-N.C., said of the change.
Pistole said he expects the changes to reduce the time passengers need to get through security. About 2,000 small pocketknives are screened each day at airports around the country, requiring an average of two to three minutes to identify, he said.
Other efforts to expedite the security process have included reducing screening requirements for children and seniors. TSA is looking at ways to pre-check more people so that whose it has identified as non-threatening can get through more quickly.
Identifying the people who are threats, rather than objects that might be used as weapons, will be a more efficient and safer way to handle security, Pistole testified.
Civil rights advocates have questioned that strategy.
“The problem with these ‘risk-based assessments’ is that they put the government on a road to judging its own citizens in secret, with no fair recourse for people unfairly judged,” Jay Stanley, a policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in an e-mail. “And how much information do you need to know about a person to prove they’re not a terrorist? The government will never have enough and the privacy intrusions will just keep growing.”