Why Can’t The TSA Find What They Are Looking For?

This past Tuesday news headlines abounded about a Utah man being arrested after he boarded a Delta Air Lines flight from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas with a knife, but the real headline should be “How do all these knives keep passing through Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints?”


Granted, David Alan Anderson travel’s with a knife are significant because he threatened to murder passenger, followed by threatening to murder two Federal Agents, but let’s get past that … most people with knives on planes have no intention of murdering anyone, much less two Federal Agents.


For nearly two years I have been crossing in and out of airport security with a knife, partly to test the system and see if the knife ever gets stopped and partly because my knife has a number of useful tools I find myself needing frequently.  My knife has been in my possession passing through passenger security checkpoints throughout the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan, Hong Kong, Government Buildings, ramp security checks, and security before entering hanger complexes and some other places I’m sure I’ve forgotten about. I don’t hide my knife, in fact I’ve blogged about it in the past and Tweeted about it quite a few times … with pictures … more than once, going so far as to use the “#TSA” hash-tag.


This past winter as I sat in an airport lounge with my knife out, using the screwdriver tip to tighten a screw on a lens, a woman sat down next to me and started chatting with me about my knife. In turn she pulled out the pocketknife she said she’d been flying with for the past few years.  This may sound odd, but I’ve even had more than one airline employee, and a few TSA employees, ask me where I purchased my knife after reading my blog post or seeing my Tweets about this knife …


… which leads to this question, why is the TSA looking for, and seemingly not finding, an item that the agency widely believes is not a significant threat to aviation security?  Nearly all of the TSA’s security research for the past few years has shown that small pocketknives pose no significant threat to commercial aviation. A decade ago it was shown that a knife could be used to keep passengers on a flight in fear while a flight was hijacked, however passenger attitudes have changed, airline passengers are no longer “sheeple.” Passengers have shown they will tackle a terrorist with a bomb, restrain a violent passenger and in one case kill a passenger trying to enter the cockpit.


Should someone seek to do damage with a knife, ceramic blades are lethal and somewhat easy to get through security. Skipping high-tech and expensive ceramic blades, a rigid carry on bag insert can be sharpened down, inserted back into a bag and become nearly impossible to detect. By why would someone who was a real threat to aviation security even use a knife when countless other weapons that can be fashioned in non-threatening ways and go completely undetected by security screenings?


So back to the real question here … why is it the TSA is consistently unable to find something they constantly say they are looking for?


Happy Flying!



  1. Because they are incompetent.

    On another note, I went through security in Denver yesterday and they had a rule that all belts must be removed and scanned in the x-ray. I found this to be odd, though, since it wasn’t a rule when I went through security in a different airport on Monday.

  2. @Jack

    The same thing happened to me at ROC last week; I kindly informed the agent that I would not be removing my belt and we’ll see if it sets off the metal detector. AFAIK, the belt removal is not a rule and is only for the AIT screens.

  3. I’d flown with that knife (in the pic) for at least 3 years…until about a month ago when some eagle-eyed TSA agent at STL spotted it at 5:30 in the morning. Couldn’t believe it. Was pissed. Still pissed.

  4. Jack & Gabe,

    The TSA requires belts come off for AIT scanners, not metal detectors. Sometimes if they are running metal detectors and AIT scanners from a single line they require everyone take their belt off.

    Happy Flying!


  5. I have a canvas belt with plastic latches that I wear when flying. I’ve taken it thru the AIT scanners many times and it poses no problem.

    Yesterday, at MCO, I was told I HAD TO take it off or face a pat down.

    Not worth arguing about to the agent there or to the supervisors who never overrule the agents. Just bad communications of the rules or agents who enjoy making up rules to frustrate travelers. Neither is acceptable, but I’m hoping for the former rather than the latter (it can be corrected).

  6. Let’s be honest Steve, you have not been traveling very much the last year to really test this theory anymore.

    This might have been true when you were sucking the life out of the CRM expense accuont, but recently, you have not been flying much – maybe one or two flights in the last 12 months.

    I have flown more in the last month.

  7. Real Traveler,

    A) You have no idea what I have or have not being doing

    B) You are correct, I am not flying on a corporate travel expense account. Nearly all of my flights in the past year comp’d ticket.

    2) I’ve posted photos of more than two flight in the past year

    3) Post with your real name

    As try to only allow people to post comments on my blog that are shown to be real people, your comment will be deleted this evening. You are welcome to repost with your name name and IP address.

    Happy Flying!

  8. @Gabe,

    I was not chosen for the AIT. I informed the agent that he just saved himself several minutes by not picking me for the AIT.

    I learned at Smith & Wesson (doing some work there recently, and they have TONS of metal detectors) that if your belt tends to set off the detector, turn the buckle sideways (flat) when you go through. Wont’ set it off.. well, not as likely. Worked for me there (where they are apparently more sensitive).

  9. WRT to the title, because its security theater to conceal a jobs program. This provides cover for the fact that over half of the cargo on airliners is not inspected.

    The 2009 rule requiring 100% cargo screening was relaxed this month to allow more “self-screening” by “approved” but otherwise unaudited shippers. If the general public realized that they are being groped, strip searched and robbed of their harmless property while these glaring deficiencies remain ignored they would be more opposed to this charade.

  10. I accidently left my Leatherman tool in my backpack when flying a couple of months ago. Security saw it, and I just mailed it home – cost me like $3. I had time and could have gone back to my car, but I was in economy and I didn’t want to ride the shuttle back to the economy lot.

    On the comment above, which I suppose will be deleted, you saw that you have traveled more than 2 times? I only remember the time to Germany when your Twitter account was suspended, but I might not have seen all the blog posts – been reading your stories since 1995 – seriously. I found when I was going through my boxes a couple of clips from AP photos you sent that must have been the discussion on one of the early Compuserve boards. Next time I am at home, I will have to take a look at them and see if I can remember why you sent them or what was the story behind them.

  11. LOL…My wife has been carrying a swiss army knife everywhere we go and she has never been stopped….we stopped counting the number o security checkpoints after #24… including Germany,Spain, Greece and Turkey.. Not to mention all the US ones…..

  12. Well, call me unlucky then. I have now had 2 eagle eyed screeners confiscate the tiniest Swiss army knife made, once at FCO and the a couple of years later, DCA. At least in DCA, the screener let me use a FEDEX envelope and pay $13.00 to send it home (same cost as I had paid for the knife originally), I didn’t want the hassle of buying another one. Prior to that, I had flown throughout Europe and US w/out any problems. Now I only take it w/me if I am checking a bag.

  13. No, here is the deal. TSA has known for a while that sharp objects are no longer a real threat, that’s why in 2012-2013 they were going to start allowing pocket knives again until the shrill flight attendants’ association got their panties in a twist. So a little pocket knife isn’t what they are scrutinizing our bags for. Some, if they do happen to notice one, may go “by the book” and pull your bag, but I think others will just let it pass. I flew out of Houston Hobby with my Leatherman in my briefcase accidentally, and no one pulled my bag. It wasn’t until I returned home that it was caught in the Tulsa security line, that was not busy at all, I was one of three people going through it at the time, that they saw my Leatherman, and when they did the hand inspection of my bag, looked at my keychain and saw my Swisskey and asked me if it opened. when I said yes, that’s when they asked me to mail them back to myself.

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