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TSA rule change draws swift backlash

The TSA decision to allow scissors and other previously banned sharp objects back aboard commercial airlines is drawing swift, negative reaction from pilots to flight attendants to lawmakers.  Even the guys with the guns are scared.
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WASHINGTON - The decision to allow scissors and other previously banned sharp objects back aboard commercial airlines, announced Friday by the Transportation Security Administration, is drawing swift, negative reaction from pilots to flight attendants to lawmakers. 

Even the guys with the guns are scared.

“These items [the TSA] are now allowing back in the hands of passengers are nothing less than lethal weapons,” in the hands of someone determined to do harm, said a Federal Air Marshal who spoke to on the condition of anonymity because of restrictions the agency places on its employees regarding conversations with the media. “I carry a gun and this new situation scares me,” another Air Marshal said.  None of the dozen air marshals contacted by said they endorsed the rule changes.

Beginning on Dec. 22, passengers will now be allowed to take scissors with a cutting edge of 4-inches or less on board as well as screwdrivers, wrenches and pliers of seven inches or less.  Box cutters and small knives are still prohibited.

The screening procedures at security checkpoints also will become more random, said TSA chief Kip Hawley.  For example, one day everyone will be required to remove their shoes while the next day they would be allowed to keep them on.

The TSA wants screeners to spend more time looking for explosives rather than ferreting out small sharp objects that the TSA has now determined pose little potential threat to airline security. 

"By incorporating unpredictability into our procedures and eliminating low-threat items, we can better focus our efforts on stopping individuals who wish to do us harm," Hawley said Friday when announcing the new rules.

Aside from the air marshals’ concerns, flight attendants and pilots also voiced serious doubts about the policy.

"I have not spoken to a flight attendant at any airline that isn't outraged by this," said Thom McDaniel, president of Southwest Airlines flight attendants' union, Transport Workers Local 556.

"As the entire world knows, terrorists murdered crewmembers and passengers on 9/11 using ordinary household box cutters," said Capt. Ralph Hunter, president of the Allied Pilots Association, the collective bargaining group for the 13,000 American Airlines pilots. "The government responded by banning such items from our aircraft cabins. Why on earth would the TSA now reverse that ban and permit passengers to carry on scissors, screwdrivers and other sharp objects? After all, passengers can simply check those items in their luggage.

"It's hard to imagine that the federal government would even consider taking such a risk," Hunter said. "The TSA should be devising ways to enhance security, not deconstruct and degrade it."

However, the Airline Pilot’s Association, the largest pilot union, is on record supporting the new rule change.

The dustup over the rules change is already spreading to Congress.  Reps. Ed Markey, D-Mass. and Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y. said Friday they will introduce a bill reversing the TSA decision.  "The Bush administration proposal is just asking the next Mohamed Atta to move from box cutters to scissors as the weapon that's used in the passenger cabin of planes," Markey said, referring to the leader of the Sept. 11 hijackers.

Meanwhile, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Friday he also intends to introduce a bill to keep the current ban on sharp objects in place.  “We understand we have to plug new loopholes, but that doesn’t mean we have to unplug the old ones,” Schumer said.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Tex., a member of a Senate aviation subcommittee, also objects to the rule change.  In a letter Hutchinson wrote to the TSA she said the change "could undermine the progress we have made in securing our skies since the 9/11 attacks. Security demands vigilance; we cannot become complacent."

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., ranking member on the House Homeland Security Committee voiced cautious acceptance of the new TSA policy, saying the agency “must take a balanced approach” when securing air travel. 

“TSA’s decision to allow certain items on planes, while keeping knives and other obviously dangerous items off of them, appears to be an attempt by TSA to address the most serious perceived threats,” Thompson said.  However, Thompson also put the TSA on notice that he will be monitoring the screening process closely to see if the changes help alleviate long lines while at the same time protecting civil liberties and privacy.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.