Who'd have thought 2.36 inches could stir up so much pain, anger and action?
I'm talking about the U.S. Transportation Security Administration's recent decision to allow pocketknives smaller than 2.36 inches on board planes in carry-on bags.
Goodbye valet serviceAmerican Airlines last week brought its self-tag program to O'Hare International Airport. Participating passengers who don't need assistance can use special kiosks to print up tags and stick them on suitcases. Then, fliers give bags to agents, who weigh and place them on the conveyor belt. The move is predicted to expedite check-in times by 55 percent, So what's next -- loading your own bags on the airplane?
The move announced March 5 in a TSA blog post blindsided the aviation community and caused memories of 9/11 to resurface for many.
"Since 9/11, flight attendants are the last line of defense in the cabin," said United Airlines flight attendant T.J. Sesko, who lost two close friends that day. "This change further endangers the lives of all flight attendants and passengers.
"We worked very hard after 9/11 to ensure that our passengers are safe and secure. Things like knives and the like should never be allowed."
TSA leaders contend that the change was thoroughly vetted as part of a "risk-based strategy approach" and will allow officers to focus on uncovering high-threat items such as explosives hidden in luggage. It also brings the U.S. more in line with international standards, officials explained.
Federal lawmakers appear divided on the issue, but TSA Administrator John Pistole was hauled in front of a House committee to defend his decision last week. So far, he's not backing down.
"In the final analysis, somebody has to make a decision based on the input from all the experts and do what is right for the greater good," Pistole told reporters. "I'm sticking with that decision."
So what can you bring in a carry-on as of April 25?
• Pocket knives smaller than 2.36 inches with blades narrower than half an inch as long as they are non-locking
• Sports equipment including up to two golf clubs, ski poles, hockey sticks and lacrosse sticks
• Novelty bats as long as they're less than 24 inches or if they are taller than 24 inches but less than 24 ounces.
Pilots' unions, some airline CEOs from Delta and merger-pending American Airlines/US Airways, and federal air marshals have joined flight attendants in pressuring the TSA to reverse course.
"We are very much troubled by it. And it's not only the more visceral side of having knives back in airplanes," said commercial pilot Dennis Tajer of Arlington Heights. What particularly bothers many in the industry is that they weren't consulted by the TSA.
"We're just shaking our heads," said Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, which represents American Airlines pilots. "None of the critical stakeholders were involved. Our concern for our passengers doesn't stop at the cockpit door. Ultimately we're responsible for the safety and security of our passengers and crew."
As for the efficiency argument, those in the industry say the TSA should crack down on rule-stretching passengers with supersized carry-ons if they want to save officers' time.
"There currently appears to be no strict enforcement ... . There's inconsistency across the system," said Sesko, president of the Chicago area Association of Flight Attendants, which represents United employees. "Maybe the TSA should get its house in order before creating an unsafe environment."
Pistole has allies on the House Homeland Security Committee, including Richard Hudson, the chairman of the subcommittee on transportation security. "If TSA implements risk-based security in a responsible way it could be a win-win for our security and our economy," he said in a statement.
But flight attendants counter that allowing knives will exacerbate situations with unruly passengers they routinely encounter and discourage others from deflating crises.
"Yes, maybe you'll get people through security faster, but is it faster that we want or safer?" asked flight attendant and AFA official Vicki Jurgens, who works out of O'Hare.
What types of disruptions do you deal with? I asked.
"Maybe a passenger has put back their seat and the other passenger doesn't appreciate it," Jurgens said. "Maybe they're starting to have words and I have to separate them. ... Maybe it's starting to get physical. I have to stop that.
"A lot of the time, I'll get another passenger to assist because I'm not a big person. If you add a knife or a baseball bat, the dynamics change. If no one steps up because there's a knife or a baseball bat involved, I'm on my own."
Interestingly, the TSA still bans boxcutters. There's "just too much emotion associated with them," Pistole told The Associated Press. Boxcutters were used to subdue and kill pilots and flight attendants during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, officials believe.
"Those knives (boxcutters) are no different from some of the knives the TSA is allowing on board now -- I find that unacceptable," Jurgens said.
Pistole testified that the TSA was under fire in 2005 from flight attendants when it permitted scissors and knitting needles in aircraft cabins, but nothing untoward has happened.
When asked about his colleagues who died on Sept. 11, 2001, Sesko closes his eyes for a moment. Among them was his good friend Amy Jarret, a United flight attendant out of Boston who perished when Flight 175 made its fatal plunge into the World Trade Center.
"Amy loved her job. She was a great person who was super with the passengers. ... She was always reliable. We were very close," Sesko said in a soft voice.
"The situation that happened that day ... it's unimaginable that it could happen again."
So what do you think? Drop me an email at email@example.com.
Thanks to everyone for your salient comments on my recent distracted driving column. I hope to air them all soon, but let's start with Charlie Struble of Lake Zurich, who doesn't mince his words.
"My opinion is that ALL distracted driving should be illegal," Struble said. "I see people driving in the suburbs every day that are driving distracted by any number of things.
"Some are reading, some are putting on makeup, some are eating and others are talking on the phone. The ones using hands-free devices are no less distracted than the others. If you watch them it is obvious that they are totally unaware of their surroundings, they stare straight ahead, never check right or left for approaching cars or pedestrians, they rarely signal a turn or lane change and rarely even glance into their rearview mirror. It's as if they are physically in their car but mentally elsewhere.
"Sens. McConnaughay and Dillard couldn't be more wrong. People DO need to be legislated into doing the right things and using common sense. Look at the statistics. People doing the wrong and stupid things are killing people every day.
"The woman that ran over a motorcyclist north of Lake Zurich while painting her finger nails is a perfect example. Were her actions right? Was she using common sense? Is she a terrible person? No, she is a loved and loving grandmother. But who in their right mind would do such a stupid thing?"
CTA Brown and Purple Line trains are running again on the Wells Street Bridge over the Chicago River -- but it's still closed to vehicles and pedestrians. That will be the case until late this year as Chicago rebuilds the aged structure.
The CTA will shut down train service over the bridge again from April 26 to May 6 for more intensive work, so plan accordingly. For alternatives, check out www.transitchicago.com.