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Air rage and small knives don’t mix, flight crews warn

Flight crews, which report confrontations with unruly airline passengers more than 100 times a year, are warning that allowing pocketknives back on planes can make tense situations in the air even more dangerous.

“My concern is that it would essentially add fuel to the fire,” says flight attendant Ian Funderburg, who is based in Charlotte. “My main concern is with safety. It’s not so much that we’re in fear, but it’s an unnecessary risk that doesn’t need to happen.”

Travelers can start carrying small knives and sports equipment, such as golf clubs and hockey sticks, aboard passenger planes starting April 25, the Transportation Security Administration said last week.

TSA Administrator John Pistole justified loosening the restrictions, which have been in place since right after the 9/11 terrorist hijackings, as part of a shift to more risk-based security.

After hardening cockpit doors to protect pilots, the agency says its goal is to look for terrorists and explosives. “The focus is on what could present catastrophic damage to the aircraft,” says David Castelveter, a TSA spokesman.

But some pilots, flight attendants and air marshals oppose the change, which has sparked a debate about dealing with unruly passengers -- and whether allowing travelers to have items that can be used as weapons turns often stress-filled passenger cabins into a more dangerous place for other passengers and crew.


Incidents of “air rage” do break out in the skies every few days.

Crewmembers filed 101 complaints last year about unruly passengers, who face fines up to $25,000, with the Federal Aviation Administration. The numbers were higher in previous years, with 140 in 2011, 149 the year before that and 176 in 2009.

But flight attendants say they don’t report all incidents. Airlines worldwide collect internal reports of air rage that they don’t release, but which the airline trade group International Air Transport Association says rose 29(PERCENT) from 2009 to 2010, after rising 27(PERCENT) a year earlier.

Andrew Thomas, an associate professor at the University of Akron who has written books about air rage and aviation security, says stress has been ratcheted up on planes because of security hassles and crowded planes. He says allowing small knives into the cabin will make flights less safe.

“Acts of aberrant, abusive and abnormal behavior known as air rage remain the most persistent threat to aviation security,” Thomas says.

Crewmembers agree and worry that confrontations could become more incendiary with weapons.

Funderburg, the flight attendant, says a colleague on a recent flight confronted a man who wouldn’t turn off his cellphone and became belligerent, finally lunging at the woman. “What if you added a knife to that situation?” Funderburg asks.

Disputes also can distract air marshals, who fly armed and undercover on some flights to discourage terrorist hijackings.

“There is no justifiable reason for implementing this policy, and it only serves to place law enforcement officers and flying Americans at greater risk,” says Jon Adler, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, which includes air marshals.

Although the International Air Transport Association says air rage incidents remain “a serious concern,” it supports the TSA’s decision to loosen restrictions to match international standards.

The move puts U.S. carry-on rules more in line with airline security standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a branch of the United Nations.

Perry Flint, an association spokesman, says global standards give passengers confidence that they won’t be subject to different security restrictions in different countries, which translates into fewer hassles.

Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, the trade group representing major U.S. airlines, says domestic airlines also support TSA’s risk-based screening approach.


At least one former TSA official says TSA was never intended to stop every squabble on a plane.

“What we were trying to do is focus its attention on the next threat, instead of fighting the last war,” says Jeff Sural, a former assistant administrator for legislative affairs at TSA now practicing law at Alston & Bird. “We took care of that with a few things: locked cockpit doors, armed pilots, air marshals. What other threats are out there?”

But the policy change leaves many crewmembers worried about weakening a layer of protection for flight safety.

And at least one U.S. airline chief executive, Delta Air Lines CEO Richard Anderson, agrees, telling the TSA in a letter obtained by the Associated Press that lifting the ban on knives makes for “additional risk for our cabin staff and customers.”

Mike Karn, president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations, which represents 22,000 pilots, says the group rejects having knives of any kind in the cabin because they would put crewmembers and passengers in harm’s way unnecessarily. “We are concerned that the proposed changes to the prohibited items list could represent a step backwards in aviation security,” he says.

Flight attendants are working to change the policy. Funderburg has begun a petition at to keep knives out of aircraft cabins.

And the Flight Attendants Union Coalition, which represents 90,000 flight attendants, has a petition on the White House website in a bid to overturn the TSA decision.

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