Monday, June 10, 2013

Fire Breathing Toaster: Leave Your Knives at Home

by Bill Adler

"TSA strongly values the input of our partners and traveling public and appreciates the varying points of view shared throughout the review process."

With those words the Transportation Security Administration canceled their announced, but never implemented, plan to allow people to take small knives --blades up to 2.36 inches and non-locking-- on airplanes. With those words, the TSA capitulated to the whines of flight attendants, air marshals, politicians and nervous passengers, who feared that knives on board an airplane could result in catastrophe.

But what kind of catastrophe? There is zero chance that a small knife could be used to destroy an airplane. Cockpit doors are hardened, procedures are in place to prevent cockpits from being stormed, and vigilant passengers are more than enough to prevent a ill-meaning passenger from hijacking an airplane with a 2.36-inch non-locking knife.

So why the uproar against small knives? The answer comes in two parts. First, there's a knee-jerk reaction that any undoing of security is bad security. Do you remember the question that was asked of all airline passengers years ago, "Have your bags been in your possession the entire time?" It was a useless, silly question because many passengers left their bags with the hotel or put them in the trunk of a taxi between when they finished packing and went to the airport. Yet the question had to be asked. It was the law. It took years and incredible political will to axe that question.

Second, flight attendants and air marshals don't want any passengers to have weapons on board, no matter how inconsequential. They fear that even a small knife in the hands of a drunk or mentally unbalanced passenger could be used as a weapon against them. I don't think so. If you've ever held a 2.36 inch knife, you know that it's a tepid weapon, one that poses harm only to a ball of string or brick of cheese. Oh, and there's been no incident of any passenger anywhere in the world ever hurting a flight attendant with a small pocketknife.

So what happens now? Now the TSA has to look for and remove small knives from carry-on bags, as they've been doing ever since 9-11. This takes time, slowing down the security line for everyone,. But more importantly, it takes resources. TSA screeners have to look for knives, and in doing so might miss something that actually matters, like a bomb or bomb parts.

If you haven't seen the selective attention test, in which a person in a gorilla suit walks through a group of people playing basketball, it's worth taking a look at: Right before their eyes, a man in a gorilla suit walks by, but a lot of people didn't see that. Why? Because they were focusing on something else. TSA screeners, being human, are susceptible to selective attention distractions, too.

For a while after 9/11, nail clippers and tweezers were banned. Over the years, the ban on these and some other non-dangerous items was lifted. Planes are actually safer because screeners don't waste time and mental energy looking for nail clippers and tweezers. (Passengers are happier about that, too.)

TSA's mission isn't to protect flight attendants from drunk passengers with wimpy knives. TSA's mission isn't even to keep passengers safe from each other. TSA's mission is to keep airplanes from being blown up or hijacked. Allowing up to 2.36-inch blades on planes, the international standard that's applied elsewhere in the world, would have enabled screeners to pay closer attention to the stuff that's actually dangerous.

So now we have to continue to leave our small knives at home. Or rather, we have to have them confiscated because we forgot to leave them at home. Will a screener miss a bomb or bomb parts because his attention, after looking at 1,000 bags that morning, was focused on knives? Let's hope not.


Bill Adler is a writer. He is the author of "Boys and Their Toys: Understanding Men by Understanding Their Relationship with Gadgets,", "Outwitting Squirrels,", and a mess of other books. He tweets at @billadler. Fire Breathing Toaster is published on Mondays.

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