TSA Proposal Questioned By Flight Attendants

By Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The nation's largest flight attendants union yesterday questioned a federal government proposal to end the ban on knives, ice picks and razor blades on board commercial airplanes.

"As the front-line personnel with little or no effective security training or means of self defense, such weapons could prove fatal to our members," Patricia A. Friend, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said in a letter to Edmund S. "Kip" Hawley, the new leader of the Transportation Security Administration. "They may not assist in breaking through a flightdeck door, but they could definitely lead to the deaths of flight attendants and passengers."

The TSA is reviewing security procedures at the nation's airports to determine whether they protect against current terrorist threats. An internal TSA document last week detailed proposals that focus on protecting the nation from an inflight suicide bombing attack and suggested that certain categories of passengers, such as high-ranking government officials and airline crews, could be exempt from security screening. The proposals also included a possible end to the ban on certain items allowed in carry-on luggage.

A TSA spokeswoman said the proposals would not reduce the level of security at airports, adding that no final decisions have been made. "The approach is about focusing the limited resources TSA has where the threat is the greatest," spokeswoman Yolanda Clark said. "The challenge here is to look at security through the lens of threat vulnerability and consequence. The suggestions that are being considered are part of a larger effort to challenge the measures we have in place to help us improve security."

The flight attendants, whose union represents 46,000 members, said that easing the ban on some prohibited items could pose a safety risk on board the aircraft and lead to incidents that terrorize passengers even if they do not involve a hijacking.

"Even a plane that is attacked and results in only a few deaths would seriously jeopardize the progress we have all made in restoring confidence of the flying public," Friend said in her letter. "We urge you to reconsider allowing such dangerous items -- which have no place in the cabin of an aircraft in the first place -- to be introduced into our workplace."

The TSA's proposals come at a time when Congress is cutting the number of federal airport screeners and as security experts increasingly believe that U.S. airliners are adequately protected from another Sept. 11-style hijacking because of reinforced cockpit doors, air marshals and more vigilant passengers.

Yesterday, the pilots union said it agreed with many of the TSA's new proposals and welcomed the review. "We applaud the fact the TSA is taking the time to review their procedures and their screening process," said Bob Hesselbein, who serves as head of security at the Air Line Pilots Association, the union representing 64,000 U.S. airline pilots.

Hesselbein suggested that security screeners could be more effective if they were trained to do more than search for scissors and Swiss Army knives of innocent travelers.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company