(CNN) — With major airlines and their crew members questioning his decision, the U.S. security official who dropped the ban on knives aboard commercial flights defended the action before Congress on Thursday.
“It is the judgment of many security experts worldwide, which I agree with, that a small pocket knife is simply not going to result in the catastrophic failure of an aircraft, and an improvised explosive device will,” Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole told a subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee.
“And we know, from internal covert testing, searching for these items, which will not blow up an aircraft, can distract our officers from focusing on the components of an improvised explosive device,” he said.
Pistole’s supporters believe the rules should be more passenger-friendly and focus on the larger threats, like bombs that can be hard to detect and can be brought aboard by passengers or hidden in cargo.
Critics believe even small knives pose too much of a safety and security risk for airline crews, reminding that the 9/11 hijackers used box cutters to take control of four jetliners.
Thursday’s hearing was the latest battleground over an issue that has roiled many in the airline industry for more than a week.
Pistole stood firm as he faced questions and criticism from lawmakers.
“I think the decision is solid and it stands. I plan to move forward with it,” Pistole said.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-California, criticized the logic behind the move, arguing that threats posed by bombs do not mean knives aren’t dangerous.
“Just because this is a new threat does not mean that old threats don’t still exist,” he said.
Swalwell co-authored a letter to Pistole saying he was “mystified” by his decision, calling it “another example of a questionable TSA policy.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said Pistole needed to change course on the rule change — fast.
“You need to stop this now,” she said. “These cause bleeding. These cause injury. These can cause a terrible tragedy. And I don’t want to take it to the next length. It can possibly cause someone to lose their life.”
Other lawmakers said they supported Pistole and praised his efforts in leading the agency.
“Why should the federal government devote taxpayer dollars to low-risk people, places, or things?” said Rep. Richard Hudson, R-North Carolina, the subcommittee’s chairman.
In the nine days since the TSA opened a can of worms by announcing it would ease the ban on small knives in airline cabins, the list of groups concerned or opposed to the idea has grown to include airlines, airport screeners, federal air marshals, flight attendants and pilots.
The surge in recent criticism from so many groups drew the attention of Rep. Cedric Richardson, D-Louisiana.
“I don’t question your judgment, because you do what you do, and we have to trust that you’re making the right decisions,” Richardson said.
But he said he questioned the process Pistole had used, arguing that he hadn’t involved enough stakeholders from the airline industry.
“I’m not asking you to defer to them, but a lot of the time it helps if they’re at the table when you’re making a decision so that they have the information that you have,” he said.
Pistole said he met with flight attendants on Wednesday, but conceded that he could have done a better job of bringing them into the process earlier.
The TSA made its decision after a threat assessment determined that allowing small knives in cabins would not result in catastrophic damage to aircraft.
But after consulting with Federal Air Marshal Service leaders, the agency opted to continue excluding knives that most closely resemble weapons, specifically knives with blades that lock in place, or have molded hand grips.
Box cutters and razor blades also would remain on the prohibited items list.
The new rule goes into effect on April 25.
The TSA said it was aligning its knife policy with international rules.
Under the new rules, knives with blades that are 2.36 inches (6 centimeters) or shorter and less than a half-inch wide will be allowed in airline cabins so long as the blade is not fixed or does not lock into place.
The rules also allow passengers to carry up to two golf clubs, certain toy bats or other sports sticks — such as ski poles, hockey sticks, lacrosse sticks and pool cues — aboard in carry-on luggage.
Airlines for America, the trade association representing the major U.S. airlines, said Monday that “additional discussion is warranted” before small knives are allowed on planes. Three of the nation’s five biggest carriers, Delta, American and US Airways, have spoken out against the policy.
Many critics of the new rules contend that in addition to adding an unnecessary threat to the safety of airline crews and passengers, the changes won’t make a difference in the TSA’s ability to concentrate on other threats.
Knives are probably the most common items surrendered by passengers at screening points, aside from liquids.
Travelers surrender about 35 knives at Baltimore-Washington International Airport on an average day and about 47 per day at Los Angeles International Airport, officials say.
By Thom Patterson and Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN.
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