How Does the TSA Decide What You Can Take On Board?

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In early March, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced an update regarding its prohibited items list, which details items banned on board airplanes and requires people passing through security to remove their shoes and jackets, as well as bag their 3-oz. liquids. As of April 25, 2013, the organization will allow passengers to carry small knives with blades less than 2.36 inches in length and .5 inches in width. Additional items permitted in carry-ons include toy bats, lacrosse sticks, and golf clubs. The full list of now-greenlit items can be found in this official TSA statement.

The announcement generated charged reactions across the country, with groups from newspaper editorial boards to industry professionals such as flight attendants voicing their opinions for or against the changes. Under the new terms, the TSA’s guidelines now jibe more with those of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a United Nations agency that is the standard-bearer in rules and regulations for international air travel and already permits these items on board.

When developing and altering its safety procedure guidelines, the TSA often looks to the ICAO. Based on accrued intelligence, the TSA works to zero in on how and where terrorists might be looking to orchestrate attacks, which at present indicates terrorists are relying on explosives, rather than items like knives. “We recognize there is an emotional issue and a knife is a knife,” says David Castelveter, TSA spokesperson. “But we don’t believe it can or will cause catastrophic damage to allow these on board.”

The aftermath of 9/11 saw the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and, operating within that cabinet, the TSA. The agency was established to prevent another terrorist attack like those of 9/11 from transpiring on US transportation, and to this day that is the agency’s mission, Castelveter says. Initially, the agency developed a stringent “one-size-fits-all” approach to airport security, shortlisting a number of items that could potentially be wielded as weapons and requiring more vigorous checks of all airline passengers.

Since then, the agency has continually evaluated and amended its guidelines with the goal of making travel security screenings more effective. In 2005, knitting needles and small scissors were allowed back in carry-ons; in 2007, cigarette lighters; and in 2012, small snow globes, for example. “As the intelligence evolves we have to evolve our approach and thinking, too,” Castelveter says.

It is important to consider, Castelveter says, that this all functions within a “layered” approach to security the TSA has developed. Layers include measures like establishing a terrorist watch list, planting behavior detection officers in airports to observe the flow of passengers, and locking and reinforcing doors leading to the cockpit on flights.

The decision to allow the knives on board, as well as hockey sticks and the additional items permitted starting April 25, required the approval of a number of individuals, according to Castelveter. A group of experts presented the recommendation to a senior leadership team, who then made the recommendation to TSA Administrator John S. Pistole. In the past couple years, the administrator had been presented with the recommendation to allow knives on board on more than one occasion, but he turned it down then, citing the intelligence at the time as unsubstantial to support the change. Under the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, Pistole has the final word on such decisions. United States Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano has voiced her support of the decision.

While small knives might be allowed on board, items like boxcutters or knives with blades that lock in place are still prohibited.  Thinking back to halcyon travel times brings reminders of being able to throw whatever liquid in a suitcase and board a plane. The TSA, however, is focused on finding materials for explosives, so it might be a while before liquids larger than travel size can pass through security.

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April 2, 2013 - 9:30am
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