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TSA errors allowed disruptive passenger to bring box cutters on flight

The agency said Cincinnati airport security missed one box cutter and improperly returned another

(iStock/Washington Post Illustration)

A man carrying two box cutters in his carry-on luggage was able to clear a security checkpoint at Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport on Friday before his erratic behavior with one of the knifelike tools forced his flight to Florida to make an emergency landing in Georgia.

Frontier Airlines flight 1761 was about an hour into its flight to Tampa when the passenger was “observed in possession of a box cutter,” Frontier spokeswoman Jennifer De La Cruz said in a statement. The plane diverted to Atlanta, where police took the passenger into custody, and no injuries were reported, she said.

The Transportation Security Administration said in a statement on Sunday that agents working the checkpoint missed one of the box cutters that was later discovered in a bag and violated protocol by returning the blades of another box cutter to the passenger after they had removed them.

The TSA said in a statement that the man’s two backpacks went through one of the agency’s advanced CT scanners. These devices can create a 3D image of the contents of a bag, but the agent operating it failed to fully use this functionality, according to the agency.

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One of the bags was flagged for a physical search, and agents discovered a box cutter. The “visible blades” were removed, but then returned to the passenger, which contradicts “standard operating procedure,” the TSA said. Box cutters must be thrown away at the checkpoint or placed in checked baggage, where they “must be sheathed or securely wrapped,” according to the agency.

“The backpack containing the other box cutter, and the remainder of the traveler’s property, was screened for explosives, but the box cutter was not discovered,” the TSA said. The agency said the employees involved have been “placed in a training status for remediation on CT image review and physical search procedures.” The agency plans to brief agents nationwide on the incident and conduct statewide refresher training for employees in Kentucky on the use of the CT scanners.

Passengers on the flight told local news outlets that the man threatened to stab other fliers with one of the box cutters. A Navy veteran told ABC News that he and an Army veteran, as well as a former law enforcement officer, tried to deescalate the passenger, and the former officer later tackled the man around the time police arrived.

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Atlanta police and FBI agents arrested the man, and officials later found the second box cutter in his carry-on luggage, according to the TSA. It was unclear whether the box cutter he flashed was equipped with its blade.

All the passengers deplaned and were provided hotels in Atlanta for the night before a new flight took them to Tampa on Saturday morning, De La Cruz said. A spokesperson for the Atlanta airport referred questions about the incident to Frontier and the Atlanta Police Department, which did not respond to questions on Monday.

The disruptive passenger, who has not been identified, is set to make his initial court appearance on Monday, according to a spokesperson for the FBI Atlanta office. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.

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