On Tuesday, the head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), John Pistole, announced that regulations put in place after September 11 governing what passengers are allowed to carry on U.S. planes would be relaxed. From April 25, passengers will once again be allowed to carry small pocketknives and some items of sporting equipment that had previously been banned.
The announcement comes amid an increasingly tough time for the TSA’s reputation. Since its establishment in 2001, the agency has had an at best patchy reputation, responsible for countless embarrassing and ridiculous blunders, which only got worse when it began public pat downs of travelers in November 2010.
Given the timing of the announcement, with no dramatic shifts or noticeable catalysts in the security environment, the changes seem to be motivated more by a desire to try and improve the TSA’s damaged reputation than by anything else.
Under the new regulations, passengers will soon be allowed to carry small knives, so long as the blade is no longer than 2.36 inches or 6 centimeters in length, and is no wider than 1/2 inch at its widest point. The knife must also not have a locking or fixed blade, or a molded grip. Sharp objects such as razor blades and box cutters are still prohibited. Passengers will also be able to carry sports equipment such as lacrosse sticks, pool cues, golf clubs (limited to 2), hockey sticks, and ski poles. In addition, novelty bats that are more than 24 inches in length and weigh less than 24 ounces will be permitted in carry-on luggage.
Furthermore, the TSA also recently announced that it plans to remove the remaining 174 Rapiscan body image scanners manufactured by OSI Systems Inc. from U.S. airports that were not removed last year. The scanners came in for heavy criticism for producing revealing naked images of passengers, with the manufacturer unable to write software to produce generic images of passengers in time to meet a congressional deadline to prevent the removal of the scanners.
According to the TSA, the changes in its regulations will bring it into line with international rules, which is definitely a positive move, as anyone frustrated at the extra delays and regulations faced when traveling in America can attest to. The interesting question, however, surrounds the timing of the relaxation of regulations. The TSA says the changes are part of its vaguely defined “risk based security initiative,” which aims to focus its resources on bigger threats. However, security improvements, such as reinforced cockpit doors and better intelligence, which some security experts say have made the ban on small knives unnecessary, are not new developments. So why the change in regulation now?
While the security situation has remained largely unchanged in the past few years, what has continued to develop is the list of TSA blunders. Such as the TSA employee who stole $5,000 in cash from a passenger’s jacket as he was going through security, just one of many allegations of theft against TSA employees. Or the groping of passengers genitals during pat downs. Or the “comedy of errors” that led to the closure of one of the terminals at Newark Airport for three hours. Or the TSA agents who thought a women's insulin pump was a gun. And the list goes one. Clearly the TSA has some image issues; over 30,000 people even signed a petition to the White House in 2011 to have it abolished.
While relaxing the rules may go some way to appeasing frustrated passengers, it is not even clear that the new regulations won’t actually prolong the screening process. The best the TSA spokesperson could offer on this was that screeners would use “commonsense” when applying the new rules. But the lack of commonsense highlighted above doesn’t necessarily bode well.
The changes have also come in for criticism from flight attendant’s unions concerned that the move ignores the safety of flight attendants. Stacy K. Martin, president of the Southwest Airlines flight attendants’ union, Transport Workers Union Local 556, argued that the policy is “designed to make the lives of T.S.A. staff easier, but not make flights safer.”
Certainly the changes seem to be less about safety and security than about the TSA trying to save face and restore its tattered reputation by easing up on passengers frustrated by long delays, overzealous implementation of regulations, and incompetence.