The head of the Transportation Security Administration announced Wednesday he would drop his effort to allow small knives and some sporting equipment in carry-on luggage on planes.
TSA Administrator John Pistole's reversal came after several months of fierce opposition from flight attendants, airlines and relatives of victims of terrorist attacks.
Pistole had argued that baggage screeners should concentrate on explosives that could bring down a plane rather than small knives. But after "extensive engagement" with aviation interests, including law enforcement officials and passenger advocates, Pistole said Wednesday that TSA would keep the prohibited-items list unchanged.
The decision was widely praised by groups that opposed Pistole's effort. The 90,000-member Coalition of Flight Attendant Unions was a major opponent to the change, holding rallies and lobbying lawmakers.
"We are so glad that the administrator took the time to review stakeholder input and make a good decision for aviation security," said Sara Nelson, international vice president of the Association of Flight Attendants. "Never again should passengers or crew face a knife in the aircraft cabin. The rule is common sense: no knives on planes."
Jon Adler, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, which represents air marshals, commended Pistole's decision. But he said the agency needs to devote resources to training officers to detect contraband, and Congress needs to provide funding for it.
Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, said Pistole reached a reasonable decision after listening to experts in the field.
"When established processes for creating policy are followed, common sense prevails," Thompson said.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said it was obvious to most travelers and crew members that knives shouldn't be allowed on planes.
"This decision will allow TSA agents to focus on more important things than measuring the length of knives and sorting the good knives from the bad," Schumer said.
Pistole had announced March 5 that he would allow small knives and some sporting equipment banned in carry-on luggage, items banned since the hijackings Sept. 11, 2001. The change applied to knives with blades up to 2.36 inches long, along with golf clubs, hockey and lacrosse sticks.
That announcement sparked a firestorm of opposition from flight attendants, air marshals who fly undercover to thwart hijackers and more than 100 lawmakers in Congress.
Pistole had defended the policy change at a congressional hearing, where he said knitting needles and scissors were allowed back in plane cabins in 2005. But then Pistole postponed the change a few days before it was to take effect April 25, so he could hear more from industry representatives and others interested in the change.
During the comment period, the trade group Airlines for America urged Pistole to drop the policy change for knives and instead focus the most intense screening on the riskiest passengers.
In early May, nine groups of airline workers and travelers filed a legal challenge with TSA and the Department of Homeland Security to prevent any return of knives into plane cabins. The groups warned they could potentially challenge the policy in court.
The groups that filed the documents were: the American Federation of Government Employees representing TSA security officers; the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, including air marshals; the consumer group FliersRights.org; the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA at 20 airlines; the Association of Professional Flight Attendants at American Airlines; the Allied Pilots Association of American pilots; the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers; the Teamsters; and the Transport Workers Union.
Reps. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., and Ed Markey, D-Mass., proposed legislation to prevent TSA from letting knives back on planes.They were hoping to attach the legislation Wednesday as an amendment to a homeland-security funding bill on the House floor.
"This is a victory for every single person who sets foot on a plane," said Markey, who commended Pistole for the courage to change course. "The bipartisan effort to stop this rule change and the grassroots effort among pilots, flight attendants, law enforcement and TSA screeners was successful because the rule change was wrong from the start."
Pistole said he made the decision not to change the prohibited-items list himself, rather than being ordered by someone else, based on seeking a partnership among interest groups for aviation security. He said TSA is good at finding small knives, detecting 2,000 per day, but that screeners will still focus on finding non-metallic explosives.
Pistole said dropping the policy change involving knives would allow TSA to pursue risk-based screening initiatives that concentrate on travelers deemed the highest threats and are embraced by the traveling public. Other steps in that process include Pre-check, which expedites screening for frequent fliers, and easing screening for people 12 years old or younger, or 75 years old and older.
"We will continue to take steps to improve our ever-evolving security posture while also improving the experience of the traveling public," Pistole said. "Risk-based security enhances the travel experience while allowing TSA to continue to keep passengers safe by focusing on those we know less about."