When Congress voted last year to prohibit passengers from bringing lighters and matches aboard commercial airplanes, it sounded like a reasonable idea for improving airline security.
But as airports and government leaders began discussing how to create flame-free airport terminals, the task became more complicated. Would newsstands and other small airport stores located beyond the security checkpoint have to stop selling lighters? Would airports have to ban smoking and close smoking lounges? How would security screeners detect matches in passengers' pockets or carry-on bags when they don't contain metal to set off the magnetometers? And what about arriving international travelers, who might have matches and lighters with them as they walk through the terminal?
With these questions unanswered, the Transportation Security Administration has told airports that it won't begin its ban on lighters and matches until mid-March even though the intelligence bill passed in December mandated that the TSA begin the ban by tomorrow.
The TSA currently allows passengers to carry "up to two lighters or four books of safety matches" in a carry-on bag, but not in checked luggage, according to the TSA's Web site. "The rule governing this change is in the final stages of clearance," spokesman Mark Hatfield said. "Once enacted, it will be followed by a public awareness campaign."
TSA Administrator David M. Stone is expected to face tough questions on lighters and on TSA budget issues before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee today, as President Bush has proposed to cut several major programs from the agency and raise passenger security fees.
"If [shoe bomber Richard Reid] had a butane lighter, there wouldn't have been any question about igniting his shoe bomb," said Barry Piatt, a spokesman for Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), a major advocate of the lighter ban. Dorgan hopes the TSA "will develop a sense of urgency" about the issue, Piatt said.
Carter Morris, senior vice president of transportation security policy at the American Association of Airport Executives, said airports need more time to make the adjustment. "Not being allowed to travel with matches or a lighter is a big change for folks who travel, whether you smoke or not," Morris said. "This is a complicated operating environment. There are a number of folks who have legitimate needs for lighters and matches to complete their job." One example, he said, is that workers at airport restaurants located beyond the security checkpoint would need matches to light candles on tables.
The TSA has told airports that for now they can keep smoking lounges open, and perhaps airports can install wall-mounted lighters.