On the 25th of April the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will once again allow certain types of knives, and other prohibited items, to fly once again as carry-on items, which I detailed on the 6th of March in Sharpen Your Knives, Polish Your Golf Clubs & Fly!
Since the TSA’s announcement there has been a hue and cry from flight attendants and others that small knives in the cabin process a real threat to aviation security, and could lead to another 9/11/01 type event. On the surface their fear are logical, but in the dynamic shifts in public mentality, changes in on board security and changes in threats, another 9/11/01 terrorist attack carried out using knives is not likely … although other risks present themselves.
First, lets look at one such odd change in the TSA carry on restrictions on the 25th of April. As of the 25th of April the TSA will allow passengers to travel with up to two golf clubs in the cabin as a carry on item. Why will the TSA only allow two golf clubs? Because the agency believe that any quantity greater than two golf clubs could constitute a threat to aviation security. Statistically nearly all airline travelers have two arms and two hands, some have no arms or only one hand … but the statistical rate of humans with the polymelia, or extra limbs, is almost non-existent and the chances of one of these people with polymelia being a terrorist is equivalent to zero. The TSA’s view that two golf clubs or less in the cabin per passenger leads to this question, how would the TSA limiting the number of carry on golf clubs to two reduce the likelihood of these items being used as a weapon in-flight?
A traveler flying to Myrtle Beach with their golf clubs is likely to leave all of their clubs in a single shipping case as checked baggage, rather than remove only two clubs as their carry on item. A single drunk passenger with a single putter on board a flight can inflict real damage. Is it likely? No, for a variety of reasons, most which are related to the size of a cabin inhibiting a person from taking a good full swing, but still the instances of in-flight golf club related attacks prior to their ban as a carry on item is essentially non-existent.
Now, back to knives … a non-locking blade of 2.36 inches on a knife with a non-molded grip can inflict damage, but not much as one might think. A knife like these is more likely to be the weapon of convenience for an intoxicated passenger rather than a person who has planned to inflict damage on a flight. The number of times these knives were used to attack a flight attendant prior to their 2001 ban is so low the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) could not provide any examples of such an attack.
If we are going to get into what is a real threat, that is more likely to be used in a calculated attack, it won’t be something that people will see coming, the weapon will be one that will never be detected by security. The list of known possible threats is almost endless, but a few stand out as simple and more likely than others.
Let’s go through four viable security threats that have been discussed with experts within the Department of Homeland Security, its sub-agencies the Transportation Security Administration, as well as a veteran of New York City’s Department of Corrections. None of these people wished to be named due to their current positions and our conversations not being cleared by their media relations departments.
1) Metal Retractable Ball Point Pen – Death by pen shows up in murder mysteries, however with some very basic training on human anatomy a metal pen, such as the common Parker Jotter stainless steal retractable ball point pen, can be used to quietly and swiftly puncture a person’s jugular. After inflicting the injury the attacker can quickly slip away, from say the galley, and wait for the panic to ensue before moving on to their greater terrorist threat. The use of a pen, depending on the angle of attack would leave a minimal blood splatter on the attacker, reducing the chances of them being spotted immediately afterwards, so they may inflict further damage in a single person or coordinated attack on board an aircraft.
2) A Sharpened Bank Card – The Edge of Glory knife sharpener, As Seen On TV, promises that with just a few quick swipes a common bank card can have a blade sharp enough to cut your most delicate fruits. This item has been tested by personnel at the TSA’s Transportation Security Laboratory and not only will it sharpen your bank card to cut your most delicate fruits, it can also slash a person’s neck with some ease, if they have had some practice in holding the card and determining their angle of attack. A standard bank card has a longer blade than the knives the TSA will allow on board as of the 25th of April, it is easier to handle and can potentially be a more durable blade. Holding a sharpened bank card in your hand, positioning one corner against you palm, at the base of your thumb and another corner inside the top knuckle of your index finger can be far more damaging than a simple small pocket knife with a slim non-locking blade.
3) Molded Plastic Suitcase Inserts – Inside many roll-aboard suitcases is a zipper in the back, allowing access to the collapsable handle. In this area on some suitcases is also access to rigid molded stays that give a suitcase its shape. These stays are flexible, but durable. Sharpening these molded stays can create a weapon of variable lengths, depending on a person’s desired usage. From longer sword, not very effective on an aircraft, to smaller knives, these suitcase inserts are perfectly hidden at all times and will never catch a second look from any person monitoring the carry on baggage x-ray scanner. A sharpened suitcase stay with a little bit of tape for a grip can do the same job as a longer metal knife with a locking blade and molded grip, the type of knife the TSA will not be allowing as a carry on item due to their greater risk of posing a threat to those on board a flight.
4) Syringe & Poison – Less likely, but a threat that has emerged in certain research, and has been mentioned by a number of experts. Medical syringes with medically labeled vials cannot be tested by airport security to determine the contents of the liquid in the vials. A syringe with poison is simple, walk up to someone, stick him or her and walk away. A small needle with a toxic cocktail would feel like a pinch, like a person backed into a screw or something else. These syringes create no bleeding as a knife or pen would and could allow multiple attacks in a very short period of time to go undetected by either a single attacker or a multitude of attackers.
Weapons aside, why is another 9/11/01 style attack using knives not likely? Two reasons. The first being the mentality of travelers. Prior to 9/11/01 if a plane was hijacked, it flew somewhere and more often than not the passengers were set free. Commercial aircraft had not been used as weapon of mass destruction. Following the 9/11/01 attacks passengers have repeatedly become active in counter-attacking, isolating and restraining threats on board commercial flights. Passengers have tackled and subdued drunks with weapons, mentally ill people who became violent and even thrown themselves on a terrorist with explosives seeking to take down a plane.
In the post 9/11/01 in-flight environment if a threat presented itself using a knife, a golf club, or anything else, it is highly likely that person, or those people, would be overtaken fairly quickly, aggressively and while injuries may occur to passengers involved on-board the fight, the aircraft would land safely.
In addition to a change in passenger mindset is the securing of the cockpit door. The cockpit door for commercial aircraft are now locked and secured. Pilots do not exit the cockpit unless they need to use the lavatory, or during a crew change on long flights. When a pilot exits the cockpit, flight attendants secure the cockpit area. Storming the flight deck and trying to break through the door, which is reinforced, would prove fruitless without significant tools to remove the door.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) already allows passengers to fly with the items as carry-on that the TSA is reintroducing into the cabin environment. When the TSA announced it would allow knitting needles, tweezers, four books of matches and small scissors in 2005 there was fear that these items could be used as weapons in-flight. To date no old lady on her way to Miami Beach has attacked anyone with her knitting needles and no chain smoker has attempted to self immolate themselves during a long delay with their matches.
Let’s all be realistic, threats exists. If someone is seeking to do harm on a flight or cause major damage to aviation security, they can find a way. The key in maintaining safety and security of commercial aviation is being observant, being trained and when possible being proactive.