Airline-safety concerns grow louder in Washington

March is proving to be a busy month for airline-safety advocates, many of whom appeared in Washington last week to oppose changes they say will cause greater risks for passengers, flight crew and the public in general.

The Transportation Security Administration announced a controversial decision this month to allow small knives aboard airplanes beginning on April 25.

Flight attendants, air marshals and even the TSA’s transportation security officers have been quick to oppose the changes. Last week, they issued statements against the relaxed standards and staged a rally on Capitol Hill.

(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Joining those efforts was Ellen Saracini, whose husband, Victor, was a pilot on board of one of the planes that terrorists hijacked and flew into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

Saracini spent the week in Washington urging President Obama and lawmakers to mandate the use of secondary cockpit barriers that airlines can use to help prevent their aircraft from being taken over.

The steel-cable barriers can be put in place when pilots open the cockpit door to stretch or use the lavatory. The devices buy time for closing the cockpit door in the event that a passenger rushes the compartment.

“Gaining control of an airplane leads to a weapon of mass destruction,” Sarancini said. “The cockpit is the last line of defense, and it’s too vulnerable right now.”

Sarancini said she is especially concerned about reports from a pilots union that United Airlines is removing secondary barriers from its new 787 Dreamliner aircraft. Most airlines do not use the gates, but United had installed them in some of its largest aircraft, she said.

In a letter to Obama, Sarancini said she opposes the new TSA rules on prohibited items.

The changes allow passengers to carry pocket knives with blades less than 2.36 inches long and less than half an inch wide. They also would permit previously banned items such as golf clubs, ski poles and souvenir baseball bats.

“Weakening aircraft security measures by allowing knives of any size onto aircraft sends the right message to terrorists and the wrong message for in-flight safety,” Sarancini said in her letter.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents transportation security officers, joined flight attendants in opposing the TSA decision during a rally Thursday on Capitol Hill.

“Knives were used by terrorists on September 11, and they have no place on our aircraft or in our airports,” AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. said.

Beyond the demonstrations, some lawmakers are beginning to take action.

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) introduced legislation last week, co-sponsored by Rep. Michael G. Grimm (R-N.Y.), to stop the new TSA rules from taking effect. The measure would freeze the permitted-items list as it stands.

Also last week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers from the House Homeland Security Committee formally objected to the policy change in a letter to TSA Administrator John S. Pistole.

The March 11 memo, signed by Reps. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) and Grimm, urged Pistole to refrain from implementing the new rules, saying the TSA seemed to have made its decision “without formal engagement with stakeholders,” including flight attendants, air marshals and the Aviation Security Advisory Committee.

On Friday, Thompson followed up the letter by introducing a bill that would require the TSA to consult with the advisory committee on all matters related to aviation security.

“This recent lapse in policy making shows that we need a proper dialog on creating security policy more than ever,” Thompson said in a statement. “We are developing policies that affect millions of passengers and frontline workers, we must make sure that any impact is taken into account.”

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Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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