Come December 22, 2005, U.S. airline passengers will once again be able to cut out paper dolls, trim their toenails, unscrew seat bolts and work on aircraft plumbing during their flights.
Yes, fellow travelers, that ever-consistent paragon of national security, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), is changing its policy, allowing scissors (less than four inches long), screwdrivers, wrenches and pliers (less than seven inches long) to once again be taken aboard airline flights.
Glory! Okay, well, there are some caveats. All TSA screeners (now called "transportation security officers" for some kind of morale purposes) will actually have to receive the memo, not a sure bet for any government program (see FEMA). All TSA screeners will have to read and understand the memo (having to get it and get it, so to speak).
All TSA screeners will have to be provided with officially calibrated measuring devices, probably undergoing additional training with same, lest sneaky passengers try to get aboard with metrically measured objects that fractionally exceed the permissible lengths. TSA's new rules will have to get past the objections of some Members of Congress, who themselves travel frequently and have an aversion to sharp objects in the hands of constituents in any close-proximity settings.
TSA officials say they are making the proposed change to obtain the best use of limited resources, even though internal TSA studies calculate that searching for cigarette lighters (which will continue to be banned, although matches are not) requires half the time of carry-on-item screeners. Furthermore, given hardened and locked cockpit doors and some armed pilots, sharp objects are no longer principal threats to security, officials say, but box cutters will still be banned.
The hype is that the trade-off will allow a greater effort searching for explosives (now deemed the greatest threat), more individual passenger "pat-downs" and more randomness, as in take off your shoes Tuesday, leave them on Wednesday and hang them from your ears Thursday. Under that scenario, talk show hosts must prepare to increase attention to "grandmother abuse," already an evergreen for periodic outrage against rules that continue to tiptoe right on past the ever-dreaded "profiling" that might, in fact, increase real security with the greatest efficiency of all available methods.
In our view, the new rules apply no more security sense than the old rules, and there are too many contradictions either way. As a case in point, we were surprised some time ago to learn that while scissors have been banned, knitting needles are allowed. Have you ever contemplated the weapons potential of a matched set of pointed, tempered titanium sweater-makers? Of course not. You're not a terrorist who can make a fine garrote out of baby blue angora, either.
Why four-inch scissors are deemed safer than the tiniest of Swiss Army knives (still banned) is one of those mysteries that will, perhaps, some day be revealed when retired TSA officials write their tell-all memoirs. At the same time we might also find out why, in 2005 alone, 19,183 citizens have tried to board planes with "clubs, bats and bludgeons" or 19,499 similarly situated individuals have not by now learned they can't take their box cutters aboard, even to Cleveland.
It's easy to make fun of most rules, particularly those implemented by government bureaucracies or Congress, in this case even easier when one learns that the TSA actually debated abandoning restrictions on martial arts throwing stars and icepicks, items that so many passengers need for a truly relaxing flight.
The 46,000-member Association of Flight Attendants sees no fun whatsoever in the new rules. Here's what Corey Caldwell, the association's spokeswoman said, as quoted in the Washington Post: "When weapons are allowed back on board an aircraft, the pilots will be able to land the plane safely but the aisles will be running with blood." That's not exactly a ringing endorsement of the rule change, now is it?
While the Air Line Pilots Association does support the rule change, that association's spokesman told USA Today that "pilots think it's more important to focus on passengers' intent rather than what they are carrying. 'A Swiss Army knife in the briefcase of a frequent flyer we know very well is a tool. A ballpoint pen in the hands of a terrorist is a weapon.'"
The attitudes of those two groups of professionals who must take us civilians up in their airplanes obviously differ, as do their circumstances in air, but the comments of both seem a lot more thoughtful than the TSA's arbitrary rule change.
Merry Christmas flying, and don't forget: only four inches for the scissors, seven for your other tools.
December 8, 2005