New TSA rules? Allow the knives, lose the marshals

The TSA just can’t win. For years, it has been ridiculed and criticized for spending time and energy at screening checkpoints on low risk threats like grannies with walkers or children in diapers.

Yet TSA’s announcement this month that it will permit passengers to carry small pocket knives on flights – a step designed to enable screeners to focus on more serious threats that could bring down an airplane – has been met with withering criticism.

Holding up a bottle of shampoo, U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer said, “I hear outcries from passengers about this … but almost no one has called my office and said why can’t I bring a sharp knife on an airplane.”

The CEOs of Delta and US Air have called for the new rule to be rescinded because their passengers and crew might be in danger. The head of the federal air marshals association has also expressed outrage, claiming the TSA decision is “putting my guys at greater risk.” Legislation to reverse the TSA ruling has already been introduced in Congress. Hopefully, it will not pass.

TSA was not established to remove every potential security risk to the flying public. Rather, it was set up in direct response to the 9/11 attacks to prevent catastrophic terrorist attacks on our aviation system that could potentially kill thousands of passengers and people on the ground, and undermine the confidence and sense of security of the American people.

The new rule on small pocket knives advances this mission by enabling screeners to focus on the exceptionally difficult task of preventing terrorists from bringing sophisticated explosive materials onto an aircraft and detonating them. A shampoo bottle full of plastic explosives could blow a gaping hole into a fuselage. A pocket knife cannot. It is that simple.

While it is true that the 9/11 hijackers executed their attack with some type of knife, few believe such a hijacking would be successful today now that the cockpit doors are hardened and locked throughout every flight. Would-be hijackers with small knives would also be confronted by a plane-full of passengers emboldened by the story of United Airlines Flight 93.

TSA’s critics seem to believe that airline passengers should not have to face any of the risks we all face in daily life. There are no guarantees that the person sitting next to you on a bus, in a restaurant or at a baseball game isn’t carrying a small pocket knife. Indeed, with the proliferation of concealed carry laws around the country, odds are that many of them are carrying far more dangerous weapons.

Although we accept these risks routinely in most contexts, we seem to have an irrational aversion to any level of risk on airplanes.

It’s no surprise that the airline owners want the strictest security guidelines possible. They currently have a taxpayer-funded security force working for them, ensuring that airplanes and airports, where they conduct business for a healthy profit, have the lowest crime rate in America.

If the airlines desire to reduce the threat their customers and employees face from irate pocket knife-wielding passengers, then the clear step to take is to ban alcohol – the cause of most unruly behavior – from all flights. But no one expects the airlines to forsake this source of revenue anytime soon.

Air marshals apparently also believe they should not have to face the same risks that bartenders, train conductors and store clerks handle every day when they interact with potentially dangerous customers. This is an odd argument. If armed air marshals are unable to subdue a passenger with a 2-inch pocket knife, why are we paying them to be on the plane in the first place?

There is a simple solution to the air marshals’ safety concerns: Let’s save the taxpayers (and the airlines) some money and end the air marshal program, which a recent study concluded can’t come close to meeting a cost-benefit test. Ending the program would allow us to dedicate its almost $1 billion cost to improved screening technology and training.

After handling billions of passengers over the past dozen years without a major incident, TSA has a good sense of how to effectively manage the wide range of risks that terrorists pose to our aviation system. Let’s allow the agency to do its job.

David Schanzer is associate professor of the practice of public policy and the director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and RTI International. This commentary was originally published in The News & Observer.