Knives on Planes

Is a minor speed-up of security lines worth the extra risk?

flickr/ Madison Guy

I still clearly remember when the jig was up with my fingernail clippers.

I had been flying with the clippers in my shaving kit for several weeks after 9/11, but I couldn’t slip them by one very alert security screener in Jackson, Mississippi. At first I thought he was kidding me, but he was in deadly earnest. He explained that the small pointed file would have to be broken off the clippers before they would be allowed to pass through. I resisted the urge to point out that — as the pilot of the airplane — I already have a very sharp crash axe within easy reach when I sit in the cockpit (I had already heard of some pilots getting in hot water for making such observations).

The screener held out the clippers as if to hand them to me, and I asked what he was doing. He said, “You need to break off the file.” My response: “I’m not touching that thing. You’ve just identified it as a serious potential weapon and I don’t want to risk an injury.” This was my subtle way of highlighting the absurdity of the situation (best I could do on short notice). The screener broke off the file and I continued my day.

Over the past decade, I’ve become inured to the theater-of-the-absurd that is our screening process, and I’ve come to accept the dangers inherent in shoes and liquids (but only for amounts over 3.5 fluid ounces). But now, apparently, knives of a certain size are safe for flight. This strikes me as odd. Couldn’t any small knife be wielded with just as much menace as the box cutters from the hijackings of 9/11?

It seems like an odd place to ease up the scrutiny, and it appears to me that the TSA is focusing on those things which could potentially bring down the plane, i.e. explosives. Pilots are trained to never open the cockpit door in a threat situation, so small knives don’t pose a threat to the plane, just to the flight attendants and passengers.

But pilots and flight attendants are concerned with this new rule. The safety of the people on our flight is our main concern, and the new policy does not enhance that safety. The stated reason for the change is to speed up the screening process, but I can’t imagine the small time savings is worth the added risk.

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