Friday, May 24, 2013

Pistole Misfires With Plan for Knives on Planes

Flight attendants may not rank up there with firefighters or police officers in terms of dangerous jobs, but the story on Wednesday that a Delta Air Lines employee was injured when the plane on which she was working encountered turbulence is proof - as if anyone needed it - that the job can be a pretty hazardous. And indeed if there were to be a fire or other emergency, firefighter/police officer/lifeguard/medic are all roles the cabin attendant is trained and expected to perform.

Firefighter training for flight attendants
Those are not the hazards encountered day-to-day though. It is the mundane tasks like providing meal service and helping get luggage into overhead bins that repeatedly send crew members to the emergency room.

Take this latest turbulence injury for example. Passengers are warned to buckle up and stay that way throughout the flight, but that option is often not available to cabin staff and they are overwhelmingly the victims when a plane encounters rough air, as I reported for The New York Times a few years ago. 

Food service carts have caused injuries
Then there are the food service carts, heavy, unwieldy with inadequate brakes and sharp corners. Last Christmas, an American Airlines flight attendant severed a finger on a trolley. These accidents are frequent enough to have prompted the FAA to issue guidance on the use of food service carts more than a dozen years ago. Clearly the problem persists. 

So I remain baffled about why Transportation Security Administration boss John Pistole thinks that these hard working and in many cases underpaid airline workers should be prepared to take a knife for us.

Pistole presents the hard-to-understand and impossible-to-believe rationale that allowing 2 and a half inch blades to be carried on to the airplane will enhance security because TSA screeners can turn their attention away from looking for knives and search for real threats like bombs. When he met with Alice Hoagland in April, that's what Pistole told the mother of Mark Bingham who was killed on United Airlines Flight 93.

The sensible Ms. Hoagland pointed out in the Wall Street Journal - and presumably in her meeting with Pistole - that it makes no sense to think that screeners are going to process travelers more quickly once they have to start separating the acceptable knives from the still verboten. The number of carry on bags screened at US airports is more than 100 million a year.

US Airways flight attendant Deborah Volpe
Gail Dunham of the National Air Disaster Alliance was another concerned citizen who met with Pistole to express her concern. Flight attendants like Deborah Volpe of US Airways, pilots like those from the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations and many, many, many others have been vociferous in their opposition. Their efforts combined have had some effect. This week, members of Congress sent a letter to Pistole asking him to reconsider. 

I'm a Global Entry member now
Pistole became a hero to many air travelers and airlines when he initiated programs to make security more risk and intelligence based, as I reported in The New York Times last year. Grandmoms, business travelers, busy journalists (uh hem) and other known and likely benign passengers can enroll in trusted traveler programs that speed them through airport checkpoints. That was a policy change rooted in common sense.

But now, Pistole is explaining that his mission must be laser focused. Since knives won't bring down a jetliner, the effect of allowing them in the confined and isolated environment of an airplane is not his problem.

Post 9/11, flight attendants were forced to add security tasks to an already lengthy list of FAA and airline mandated assignments. They could take comfort in knowing they were doing their part in protecting passengers and maybe preventing another terrorist attack.

Now for reasons that continue to mystify, the TSA has taken the preposterous position that its okay to board a plane with the tools to commit mayhem so long as the goal is not terrorism.

Knives aren't guns, I get that. But if knives are allowed in to the passenger cabin, flight attendants and anyone else within reach of blade wielding assailant will be in the crosshairs - and John Pistole will have put them there.


Anonymous said...

I think you are overreacting here. The list of things you could get through security to harm someone else is large, and removing one won't make any difference. For example someone determined can use a sharpened toothbrush instead as they do in prison.

It is far better to react to the threat not a specific tactic - the latter always leaves you one step behind. For the knife scenario it would be far more effective to have training in reading people, self defense and possibly better sleeves on clothes when you use your arm to block. That works no matter what an assailant tries to use.

Screening is the worst place to catch bad guys. They should have been caught long before that, and that is where the money and effort should be spent. All screening should catch are idiots.

I really wish the airlines would make clear after you buy a ticket just how much they got, and what all the taxes went on. If passengers knew that they just paid $7 to walk through "security" there would be far more of an uproar.

Anonymous said...

An airline ticket is a Contract for Transportation, not a ticket to a knife fight.
Pistole is wrong.

What about the cost of unscheduled landings when there are knife incidents?
Gail Dunham

John Darbo said...

So, we see Mr. or Ms Anonymous has never served as a Flight Attendant.

Anonymous is correct about self-defense training, and that is done. He/she is correct about reading people; "profiling" is what that is called.

But Pistole is dead wrong about knives as minor threats and improving screening effectiveness.

Oh and speaking of "dead", most of the Flight Attendants and the pilots were already dead when their airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center Buildings and a peaceful PA field and the Pentagon -- killing thousands, at the hands of people wielding blades that were about one (1) inch long.

Mr. or Ms. Anonymous' comments are clearly driven by his or her pocketbook - as noted by "I really wish..." in the last paragraph.

Oh, and my name is John Darbo. I am a retired airline flight safety manager and line pilot. I had friends at 9/11, and I have memories and a tee-shirt from 9/11.

Mr. or Ms. Anonymous, what are your credentials; even revealing your name would be interesting.

Ron Kuhlmann said...

I am so tired of US flight attendants. Not only do they hasten to remind us that they are there primarily for our safety--mitigating any need to provide service--but they portray their jobs as amongst the world's most dangerous and continue to treat passengers as suspects. No where else in the world are airplanes landed when parents object to movie contents. And not only do they make poor judgement calls but their airlines appear to condone such behavior.

Are not the rest of the world's airlines also subjected to turbulence, food carts an the other "lethal" threats that seem to preoccupy US staff? And yet they generally do their jobs with grace and goodwill.

The world is not gunning for you nor is your injury rate perceptibly higher than that found in other jobs. I recently flew first class on two back-to-back flights, one foreign and one US. The difference in attitude, welcome and service was absolutely stunning.

You have chosen to work in the service industry and that implies public contact and interaction. The public is a weird animal and it is your job to make people comfortable and feel secure--but not threatened. If you think things are tough in the air, try teaching high school in Oakland or the Bronx. Or work at Trader Joes, where I am always greeted more warmly when buying milk than when I board a flight.

Get rid of the chip and smile--for real.

Anonymous said...

@John Darbo: The 9/11 attacks succeeded because the policy at the time was to do as hijackers said which wasn't unreasonable - it got planes safely on the ground.

Since then the policy has been to fight back, and to reinforce cockpit doors. That will go a long way to preventing a repeat of a similar attack no matter what weapons are used.

My point appears to have been missed - there are a huge number of potential weapons that can already get through. Just because you can't think of some, doesn't mean the bad guys can't with a sharpened toothbrush an example.

Also see Argument from authority