US to allow pocketknives on planes

The US Transportation Security Administration will let people carry small pocketknives onto passenger planes for the first time since the September 11 terrorist attacks, along with golf clubs, hockey sticks and plastic Wiffle Ball-style bats.

The agency will permit knives with retractable blades shorter than 6 centimetres and narrower than 1.3cm, TSA Administrator John Pistole said today at an aviation security conference in Brooklyn. The change, to conform with international rules, takes effect April 25.

Passengers will also be allowed to board flights with some other items that are currently prohibited, including sticks used to play lacrosse, billiards and hockey, ski poles and as many as two golf clubs, Pistole said.

The changes attracted criticism from labor unions representing flight attendants.

"This policy was designed to make the lives of TSA staff easier, but not make flights safer," Stacy Martin, president of the Transportation Workers Union local that represents Southwest Airlines flight attendants, said in a statement.

"While we agree that a passenger wielding a small knife or swinging a golf club or hockey stick poses less of a threat to the pilot locked in the cockpit, these are real threats to passengers and flight attendants in the passenger cabin," Martin said.

'Shortsighted decision'

Pistole's announcement reflects "a poor and shortsighted decision by the TSA," the Flight Attendants Union Coalition, representing five labor groups, said in a statement. "We believe that these proposed changes will further endanger the lives of all flight attendants and the passengers we work so hard to keep safe and secure."

Changes removing items like sporting goods from the prohibited list are based on recommendations from a TSA working group that's trying to weed out commonly confiscated items that don't present a security threat, agency spokesman David Castelveter said.

"These are popular items we see regularly," Castelveter said. "They don't present a risk to transportation security."

Pistole, the former No. 2 official at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, has stressed the use of intelligence and "risk- based" security during his tenure leading TSA. The agency is moving away from uniform procedures that apply to every passenger and toward efforts to perform background checks on passengers before they arrive at an airport.

Besides conforming with international rules, the TSA policy changes will keep US checkpoint officials from spending time confiscating objects that don't present a risk, Pistole said. The changes will let more passengers go through screening lines more quickly, he said.

"The idea that we have to look for, to find and then somehow resolve whatever that prohibited item is -- that takes time and effort," Pistole said. "That may detract us from that item that could lead to a catastrophic failure on an aircraft."

The greatest threat to US travellers is currently small, non-metallic bombs, not knives or sporting equipment, Pistole said.

Overseas passengers will no longer have to check the qualifying knives as they pass through the US.

The agency will still prohibit some knives, including those with locking blades or molded handles, like those used by hunters for skinning, Pistole said. There's still concern about knives clearly intended for use as weapons, he said.

Box cutters, like those used by the September 11 terrorists, and razor blades will still be banned.

"The sensitivity to those who were attacked on 9/11 still resonates strongly," Pistole said. "There's just too much emotion associated with them, particularly the box cutters."

The agency also is carving out two exceptions to its ban on most baseball and softball bats. It will allow souvenir, novelty baseball bats less than 61cm long and will permit lightweight plastic bats even if they're more than 61cm.

In Australia, passengers are prohibited from carrying pocket knives on board planes. In 2009, the Australian government relaxed laws on prohibited items slightly, allowing knitting needles, umbrellas with metal points, nail files, corkscrews and sport racquets to be carried on board.