TSA Postpones New Carry-On Rules


ADDITION: June 5, 2013

After months of controversy, TSA has announced it is permanently dropping its proposal to allow small knives on planes. My original discussion of the proposal is below.

May 5, 2013

Back in March, the Transportation Security Administration announced it would rescind its longstanding prohibition against the carriage of small knives in airplane cabins. Effective in mid-April, passengers would be allowed carry implements with blades of up to 2.36 inches * onto planes.

Well, we’re already into May, and it’s not happening. The announcement triggered strong backlash from flight attendant groups, pilots and airlines, and in response TSA has postponed the changes until further notice.

The concern is that relaxation of the ban could lead to more violence in the cabin. Flying can be stressful; planes are crowded and tempers occasionally flare—or worse. There have been numerous cases of so-called air rage in which passengers have assaulted flight attendants. The presence of knives, many believe, makes such attacks more likely, and more lethal.

Before exploring the TSA’s side of things, let me say up front that I am not endorsing their earlier decision to loosen the rules. Unfortunately this topic is so radioactive that it’s difficult for anybody (including me) even to discuss it without being harangued and ridiculed. You don’t need to remind me about the benefits of working behind a locked and armored door, and I’m perfectly aware of the threat posed by unstable or intoxicated passengers. Obviously I’m not in favor of a policy that would make it easier for somebody to physically injure a colleague. I’m just telling you what I believe the agency’s thinking is.

Basically it follows two lines of reasoning:

The first is knowledge that a deadly sharp object can be easily improvised and fashioned from virtually anything, including all kinds of materials regularly found on airplanes. There are thousands of ways to contrive a weapon that’s at least as dangerous a two-inch hobby knife. Apparently the TSA feels there is no longer any point in rummaging through bags to confiscate small knives and scissors when an equally lethal implement can be made from a broken first-class dinner plate, a wine glass, a snapped off shard of plastic, or one of the thousands of pieces of metal cutlery used on planes every day. Easing the rules could free up time and resources, allowing guards to concentrate on more potent threats, including bombs and improvised explosives.

The second line of thinking is more emotionally charged. It requires us to move this entire conversation out from under the framework, and the emotional weight, of September 11.

How so? Conventional wisdom holds that the 9/11 attacks succeeded because 19 hijackers took advantage of a weakness in airport security by smuggling box cutters onto jetliners. But it has been argued that what the men really took advantage of was a weakness in our thinking, and our presumptions of what a hijacking was, and how one would be expected to unfold, based on the decades-long track record of hijackings. In years prior, of course, a hijacking meant a diversion, perhaps to Havana or Beirut, with hostage negotiations and standoffs; crews were accordingly trained in the concept of “passive resistance.” The presence of box cutters on 9/11 was incidental. Any sharp objects would have sufficed, particularly when coupled with the bluff of having a bomb. Their plan relied on the element of surprise, not on weapons. So long as the hijackers didn’t chicken out, they were all but guaranteed to succeed.

They didn’t chicken out, and it worked. But could it work again? Indeed, flight attendants were the first people murdered on 9/11, with small blades. But it’s also true that the hijack paradigm was changed forever even before the morning of September 11 had ended, when the passengers on United Flight 93 realized what was happening and fought back. Because of the awareness of passengers and crew, together with armed pilots and barricaded cockpits, the chances that a jetliner could again be commandeered using knives is at best remote. This was not the case in 2001, but it is true today.

Those opposed to the changes can counter all of this with a simple and logical premise: there’s simply no need to make it easier for a passenger to injure somebody while flying. I agree.

Ultimately, if this issue is to be discussed rationally, it needs to be removed from the 9/11 context and put to a simple question: is there reason to think that allowing small knives on a plane could lead to an increase in violence or stabbings? If the answer to that question is yes, the restrictions should remain in place. If the answer is no, relaxing them is acceptable, for the common good of rationalizing and streamlining airport security.


* If you’re wondering where 2.36 inches comes from, that’s six centimeters. TSA’s liquids and gels restrictions are also based on metric measurements. The maximum container size is not 3 ounces, as is commonly believed. It’s 3.4 ounces, also known as 100 milliliters. Those travel-friendly containers you buy at CVS are cheating you out of nearly a
half ounce!


This story was originally published in The Daily Beast.

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58 Responses to “TSA Postpones New Carry-On Rules”
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  1. Isabel says:

    Since high school I had a small Swiss Army knife (knife, file/screwdriver, tweezers, toothpick). I NEVER had any problems flying with it until last year. Depart Boston with no problems–I don’t think the agent even registered it–but on my return flight from Florida it got confiscated and predictably never returned. The most puzzling thing to me has to be: why/how was I able to get it on the plane in Boston but not Tampa?

    (I eventually replaced the knife, but the new one doesn’t have the same ‘character’ of scratches, scuffs and a pawprint doodle carved into the case)

  2. Infrequent Flyer says:

    I think if airlines are going to continue with overly stringent security regulations, they ought to demonstrate their effectiveness! …State how many disasters the measures averted, tally the number of “weapons” confiscated.

    Like most everyone, I imagine, I’ve had my underwear and other unmentionables strewn all over the conveyor belt because of a forgotten corkscrew from a hiking trip left in a pocket of a backpack. The oblong cardboard Macy’s box I store my jewelry in was mistaken for a gun. I’ve had jewelry “beep” and even an underwire bra. I then had to stand there in public while a female attendant waved a hand-held scanner repeatedly over my bust while my seemingly bionic breasts beep-, beep-, beeped until I could convince her that the source was an undergarment. (My bad, I didn’t know the wear-a-sports-bra trick, at the time). But, the worst was when my 80-something grandmother, in a wheelchair had to be taken to another room, with no family in tow, to be frisked because she was unable to ambulate through the detector at her gate. That actually made me cry, she was so scared. She came out unscathed, but the measures employed did nothing to make the public safer– because we WEREN’T dangerous in the first place! At the end of the day, I’m not really complaining, because the flights I was able to take still made the trips better than if I had to have driven them.



  5. Patrick:
    Just finished “Cockpit Confidential” Kindle edition while in NYC on business. Found it the terrific read your columns and blog posts have been all these years, thank you! Bad news: You still can’t carry your serrated butter knife aboard a flight for which your the pilot. Good news: I spotted “CC” in the rack at Hudson News in LGA: #23 best seller! Finally! You have a publisher who gets it! Thanks, again, for all the great insights you’ve provided to this denizen of economy.

  6. Francis says:

    I guess they should also stop allowing pens, pencils, and 12″ knitting needles on board. Flight attendants always comment on the nice scarf my wife is knitting when we fly!!!

    • Tracy says:

      You aren’t flying in the same airports I am. They routinely confiscate knitting needles, including plastic ones. They also take tiny sewing scissors, crochet hooks, macrame pins, and large gauge embroidery needles. And yes, they do take metal barrel pens and pencils, which business travelers often carry and which can be very expensive to replace.

  7. David says:

    PS: Ikea sells a really nice pack of four 3.4-oz travel bottles.

  8. ColoZ says:

    As soon as I saw the hysterical backlash to TSA’s announcement last month I expected them to cave. Still, how childish and disappointing. I was so looking forward to being able to trim painful hangnails while on my frequent short trips — not to mention living in a slightly less irrational country.

  9. Simon says:

    That all said, personally, the knives aren’t the thing I’d like to be relaxed first. Much more inconvenient is the ban on liquids and the whole shoe removal nonsense.

    The liquid ban forces people to essentially check bags as soon as toiletries are involved. What a nuisance if you’re flying somewhere for a short period and you’re traveling light, as in business travel.

    The shoe removal is just 9/11-hysteria kabuki. If the scanner can’t detect a bomb in somebody’s shoes, why should I trust it to detect a bomb between somebody’s buttocks?

    Finally, last item on my immediate removal list would be the full body scanners. Where’s this obsession with trying to *see* (i.e. with you eyes) under people’s clothing? Rather than see, why not rely on physics and chemistry to actually *detect* the stuff you’re concerned with. Detect metal (guns, bombs, knives) and explosives (bombs, ammo) with metal detectors and chromatographs. People walk through without stripping or groping and that’s that. If the passengers’ time were actually considered money, we wouldn’t be doing it any other way.

    • Tim says:

      Actually, the shoe-removal is legitimate. You see, back in 1994, Ramzi Yousef (remember him?) planted a bomb on Philippine Airlines Flight 434. He smuggled the battery and some wiring aboard in the heel of his shoes. How? The scanners couldn’t scan below ankle height (I don’t know if the newer ones can). But if nothing’s changed, the scanner can detect something between the buttocks, but not in the shoe. So you run the shoe through the X-ray machine.

      • Simon says:

        The solution to that problem is to have the scanner scan all the way to the ground. Just like state of the art scanners do. And before you counter that that would require all airports to buy new scanners, let me remind you that just happened. Only they bought a much more expensive type. Ah, the joys of kabuki.

        • Tim says:

          You’re right, of course, and I hope the newer scanners actually do. But there are things you can hide in your shoe (like C4) that a regular scanner or a pat-down won’t reveal. The more intrusive scanners will though. So pick: either take off your shoes and walk through a regular scanner, or don’t take them off and walk through a super-intrusive scanner.

          Honestly, I prefer the second option. Taking off my shoes is an annoyance. The super-scanners are an invasion of privacy.

          • Simon says:

            That was my entire point. If you’re worried about C4 why use x-rays or metal detectors? A chromatograph is what you want if you’re trying to detect a chemical signature. Ironically, the Chinese have been using more of those at their airports than the US. So much for technology leadership.

  10. Simon says:

    No offense Patrick, but your new Daily Beats piece reads as if you’ve caved under the pressure of (some of) your fellow colleagues in the cabin. While your original arguments were rational and well thought out it now sounds like a lot of compromise in order not to step on other people’s feet.

    How can you argue that if knives “could lead to an increase in violence or stabbings” they should be banned on airplanes? This after you just pointed out that far more dangerous objects can be found/made in the cabin w/o people first having to actually carry it onto the plane (i.e. getting it through a TSA checkpoint).

    Furthermore, what actually makes a plane so special compared to e.g. a NYC subway car? If knives have to be prevented from being brought onto the aircraft because they increase the chance of injury when people get into a brawl, how come that’s only an issue in the air? Why isn’t the same logic applied to subways, trains, or busses? If rational reasoning leads to a ban on aircraft (with reinforced locked cockpit doors and post-9/11 mindset), the ban on busses, trains, streetcars, whatever must follow immediately, right? Better yet, time to also ban all potentially harmful objects from public areas: scissors, plastic bags, etc. Does this sound like enough madness yet? Well if not, then just consider for a moment that this discussion is taking place in a country that otherwise prides itself for allowing the sale of machine guns over the counter to pretty much any non-fellon adult.

    The absurdity of this discussion couldn’t be more Kafkaesque.

  11. Tim says:

    I imagine if TSA has any sense they’ll just eyeball the length. “Swiss Army knives are fine, but don’t let anyone bring a Bowie knife on board.”

  12. Randall Cameron says:

    I read a report recently that said that, as it turned out, boxcutters were actually not used; the hijackers bought something like Buck knives shortly before the attack, and they were not found among the personal effects left behind afterwards.
    I agree, no one will take over an airliner again with a knife, or anything short of a full-auto weapon. Bombs remain the real threat. But the point of “no locking blades” is that if you stab something with a pocket knife, depending upon the angle and movement of both the knife and target, the blade can fold (e.g., striking a bone), and a much shallower wound results. A long screwdriver is deadlier than a short pocket knife. I *imagine* a trained killer would slash the neck rather than stab, unless using a big hunting / fighting knife.

  13. Josh says:

    How many flight attendants were stabbed in the 50 years knives were allowed prior to 9/11? It’s ridiculous to think that once again allowing knives will cause an epidemic. Not to mention the flight attendants on 9/11 were killed for diversion/fear; that tactic will no longer be viable as the whole paradigm of hijacking has changed.

  14. 39alpha says:

    The backlash to this welcome rationalization of security policy seems to be gaining steam. There seems to be a White House petition on the subject and I am concerned the TSA will back down under pressure. Does anyone know of/could organize a counter-petition in support of the new rules?

    (And to those sniping about Patrick Smith happily leaving passengers to the whims of armed lunatics while flying behind a locked door, that’s hogwash. Airline pilots ride in the passenger cabin all the time — in fact almost certainly more often than these complainers do.)

  15. Julia says:

    I think most people on board and aircraft would be aware if someone broke a dinner plate or wine bottle or “fashioning weapon” by “sharpening” a ballpoint pen and would prepare to defend themselves….however, they would probably be caught unaware by somebody whipping out a small pocket knife….or box cutter……again, brave, brave talk from someone protected by a titanium door…..

    • Patrick says:

      Again with the titanium door. Stop doing that; it’s a deflection. The fact that I’m a pilot has nothing to do with the logic or sensibility of my argument.

    • Simon says:

      No titanium doors in busses or trains where people have alway been able to carry knives. Where’s your concern there?

      What a non-issue. But hey, if you like living in fear, go ahead. Just don’t spoil everybody else’s travels.

  16. Cynthia says:

    Brave talk from someone protected by a titanium door. Flight attendants were the first murdered on 9/11 with small blades.

    • Simon says:

      People carry knives on busses and trains. No reinforced doors there and yet nobody’s concerned with stabbed drivers or conductors there. Another case of post-9/11 diffuse sense of fear clouding somebody’s judgement.

  17. Scott says:

    This is good, as I have lost a couple of pointy objects over the years to the TSA. Today my frustration is the belt and shoes-WHEN can we stop that? The TSA says they did this to comform to international standards but in Europe they have stopped the shoe rule.

  18. Denise Conner says:

    You can be cavalier and all knowing and brave when your ass in behind that thick door…meanwhile the flight attendants are out there with all of those small knives in the cabin…jerk…a flight attendant was the first casualty of 9-11..

    • Edmund says:

      Sad fact of life. If someone wants to kill you, Cynthia, with a sharp object on a plane, the ban being in place does not alter their ability to do it one bit.

      All the ban does is make you feel “safe”, when the reality is that you are just as vulnerable to being stabbed with the ban in place. Does it offer you any cold comfort that the person that stabs you had to use a broken piece of plastic, hand mirror, or other object?

      Stabbed is stabbed.

    • Simon says:

      Nonsense. People carry knives on busses and trains. No reinforced doors there and yet it’s a non-issue. Your post-9/11 diffuse sense of fear is clouding your judgement.

    • Doc says:

      Now that everybody knows about it, I suppose you think there will be a rash of stabbings inflight…

  19. Marcio V. Pinheiro says:

    In the last two flights I took on two different airlines we had regular meat knives that could be easily used as weapons. Yet nobody seemed concerned.

  20. JRS says:

    “Things like barricaded cockpits are a strong and useful deterrent, but what really has made the difference is a shift in awareness, on the part of both passengers and crew members. It was a change in our mindset, not the confiscating of pointy objects, that rendered another September 11th-style plot unworkable.”

    This is a heroic, eminently correct mindset — and it has been ever since Patrick first raised it. A little faith in each other will go a very long way. I just wish the TSA and the rest of America agreed.

  21. Eric says:

    “Easing the rules will free up time and resources, allowing TSA staff to concentrate on more legitimate threats.”

    –Like bottles of water?

  22. crella says:

    So your butter knife will not longer be an object of fear, congratulations 🙂

    TSA’s lost and found is an utter joke as well…no live people, just an answering machine and ‘only US numbers for callbacks’. My husband left a Cartier fountain pen in the bin when he went through Dulles Airport and 12 calls left on their answering machine and four months later, and no pen…

    • Ian MacDonell says:

      I remember a “sting” news story in which a TSA agent was filmed stealing a laptop, which was later found in his home. The news story went on to say that a few hundred agents have been found to have stolen or “confiscated” items.

  23. Ian MacDonell says:

    I carry a Victorinox “Classic” pocket knife with me and I think that the toothpick gets more use than any other part of the tool. I am frequently amazed that this knife cannot be carried on board, yet when a meal is served I am given a blade more lethal than this could ever be. I am still smarting over the loss of a jar of wild honey at Heathrow, and to those TSA agents who evidently forgot to put back the tent pegs they removed while searching my baggage, thanks for the surpise when I was setting up my tent in a wind storm.

  24. Jim Houghton says:

    Besides, as has been pointed out myriad times by now, brandishing a weapon on a plane, post-9/11 is only going to get you tackled by every able-bodied passenger on the whole plane, all at once.

  25. Stephen R. Stapleton says:

    Patrick is absolutely right about this. Nearly 90% of what needed to happen in the event of a highjacking occurred on September 11th itself onboard United Airlines Flight 93. Securing the the cockpit was the rest. I firmly believe a highjacker could stand up with an AK-47 and there wouldn’t be enough of him left for DNA identification by the time the passengers were through.

    TSA can’t really stop a highjacking. It is more about stopping bombs these days and that has also been the tactic terrorists have switched to, abet mostly unsuccessfully. However, even terrorists recognize the highjacking thing isn’t viable. Of course, I don’t think keeping fluids to 100 ml helps all that much either. Terrorists seem perfectly capable of buying multiple tickets.

  26. Michael Goodwin says:

    Does this mean the TSA will now return all three of my confiscated swiss army knives? (Gee, I forgot it was in my pocket; and I can’t get all the way back to the counter to get them to find my suitcase and stick it inside, and there’s no facility here at security to forward it to my destination where I could pick it up, so I guess I’ll let you keep it. Along with the vaguely pointed metal goddess that adorns my key chain. And those nail clippere in my toiletries bag. And…oh never mind.)

  27. TV says:

    So, when can we start bringing hairspray on board and keeping our shoes on during the screening? I wish I were more optimistic, but this revision of the rule seems even more complicated than the original (e.g., two golf clubs, one wiffle-ball bat…).

  28. F. K. Sayre says:

    Made two trip last week and my Swiss Army knife went through both times without comment. The policy is already in force.

    • NoLongerFearful says:

      Nope, the policy isn’t already in place. On my third trip in two years with a pocket knife/nail file/cork screw combination in my purse, the TSA agent confiscated it two weeks ago.

      • UrbanManUSA says:

        Yesterday in Houston, my corkscrew (not a cheap one) was confiscated out of my carry on because it has built into it a very small knife (maybe 1 inch long) to be used to cut through the foil that seals a wine bottle. I have carried this corkscrew in my carry on at least 10 times in the past two years with no problem at all. I’m peeved.

  29. john goldfine says:

    I’m glad that the first chink in the wall of silliness has been made, but the new rules create new silliness: why the ban on lockbacks? Is a friction-lock less lethal? Why the ban on molded handles? Are they inherently more dangerous? Why allow 2.36 inches but not 2.5? Why not boxcutters?
    Is the symbolic freight too heavy?

    What TSA implicitly is doing is running a silly fantasy scenario: here are the terrorists holding knives; what knives can we let them hold that will make it easiest for passengers to overcome and subdue them?

    Judging from the TSA photos, someone at Wenger and Victorinox has the ear of the TSA. Apparently, cute Swiss Army Knives are terrorist-unfriendly.

  30. Paul says:

    YAY! I’m someone who carries a pocketknife all the time. I bring it out between one to ten times a day to open thing, trim things, us it as a screwdriver, lever, bottle opener, etc.

    Used as a weapon, a knife is pretty useless unless you are just confronting one person. I can’t think of any time I’ve ever been on a plane was only one other person on board.

  31. KL says:

    Again, a point of view from someone who is safely, securely BEHIND barred closed doors.

    • okieprof says:

      KL, while yes it’s true that passengers and crew could be harmed by small knives, I think you missed 2 important points. First, they could already be as easily harmed by currently allowed items. Mirrors are allowed, for instance, a a shard of broken glass could be far more dangerous than a 2 inch pocket knife. More importantly, we don’t ban pocket knives everywhere else. Why are passengers on aircraft more in need of such safety than people on a subway car, or on a bus, or at a restaurant, or on a public street for that matter? Only 2 things seem unique about airplanes. You can’t leave and the airplane itself can be used as a weapon (ala 9/11). But we are captive many places (subway cars for instance) and passengers there can easily carry pocket knives. As to the latter point, well, read the article.

      Frankly I think you’re just being reactionary and fearful. For once, thank goodness, the fearful reactionaries aren’t driving policy.

    • Kim says:


      That is not exactly fair to Patrick. Haven’t you read about all his travels? He probably spends about as much time in the back of the plane as he does in the front.

      Not only that, he is right on the money! Not that I expected anything different!

  32. Warren says:

    It’s not that the TSA wants to use the metric system. It’s that almost the entire rest of the world uses metric and we need to coordinate with them.

    • Jay says:

      Well, actually it’s not so much about “co-ordinate” but rather to dictate to the rest of the world – that doesn’t use the imperial system. So when the TSA says 6 cm, it’s to make clear for the rest of the world that this rule is what you should use. Simple as that. And yes, unfortunately I mean exactly what I am saying.

  33. Ben says:

    So the TSA use the metric system. Well at least they’ve done one sensible thing…

  34. Peter says:

    I applaud you for a well-written essay.

    This is what I have been telling for years, and this is also what our airport security acknowledges and this is what our state-licensed trainers tell us, only trouble is, there is a law so even sensible people cannot do sensible things, lest they face airport closure (in the most extreme case).

  35. Adam says:

    So, why wait until mid-April? Are they actually deploying rulers?

  36. Tod says:

    I can imagine those TSA guys with a plastic ruler measuring everything that goes through now, basically finding a new way to inconveniance people.

  37. Elizabeth Matheson says:

    Oh Lord…and I am flying next week….there will surely be delays in the security line as TSA and passengers “discuss” what can and cannot be taken aboard…*smh*

  38. Lee says:

    You… you mean … a qualified airline pilot could now take a (very small!) dinner knife through security! It is surely the end of days! 🙂