TSA Pocketknife Policy: Much Ado About Nothing

Courtesy Chris Dumm for TTAK

What’s in an inch? More to the point, what’s in 2.36 inches by 0.5 inches? The Transportation Safety Administration has proposed allowing airline passengers to carry certain small knives with them in the passenger cabin, as long as their blades are no larger than the ‘magic numbers’ of 2.36 inches by 1/2 inch. Clearly this 3-inch Kershaw Beacon doesn’t cut the mustard, although it cuts a lot of other things.

As a person who used to always carry a pocketknife everywhere, including airline flights, I’m all in favor of bringing some common sense back to air safety rules. Knives were not considered an airline security threat before 9/11, because they had never been used to commit mass mayhem on board an aircraft.

That all changed on 9/11, whose hijackers were only successful because of the passivity of the crew and passengers who believed they were being hijacked for ransom. Airline passengers will never make that mistake again, as several attempted hijackings and bombings have proven. Going aggro on a jetliner is now a very quick way to get yourself beaten senseless and duct-taped into your seat.

The proposed new rules would allow small blades in aircraft cabins, provided that they:
1. Are not fixed blades (whatever);
2. Not locking blades (shucks);
3. Aren’t box cutters (too symbolic); and
3. Don’t have molded handles (huh?)

These proposed new rules are a step in the right direction, but some parts of them still strike me as Feel-Good Security Theater because they have rather little to do with actual lethality.

Predictably, airlines and air crew are protesting these proposed rules, complaining that they’ll turn the skies red with the blood of innocent passengers and cabin crew.

Me? I’m on the other side of the fence: I don’t think these new rules go far enough.

Blade Size Limits
I  can understand limiting the length of blades on airliners, because shorter blades are less lethal than longer blades under most circumstances. Large combat knives are probably bad for pressurized aircraft cabins because a suicidal hijacker could use the long, sturdy blades to breach a cabin window. (Something the TSA seems not to have considered in proposing to allow golf clubs and small bats on board…)

But we’re talking about knives here, and there’s a fuzzy continuum of lethality between a Victorinox Solitaire and a Gerber Mk II, and I’d be really interested to learn how the TSA arrived at the ‘magic number’ of 2.36 inches long by 0.5 inches wide. After all, human neck arteries are barely an inch under the skin, and well within reach of a 2.36 inch blade. Hell, they’re within reach of a ballpoint pen if the attacker is savage enough.

So where did these magic dimensions come from? Like most mysterious and ineffectual human decisions, I strongly suspect that a committee of some sort is responsible.

No Fixed/Locking Blades
We’re starting to get a little bit silly here. A bad guy is more likely to cut his own fingers if he’s careless with a non-locking Swiss Army knife, but what terrorist or lunatic is going to be stopped in their tracks by a cut finger?

If our hypothetical bad guy doesn’t want to cut his own finger, it’s a pretty simple matter to grind off the cutting edge closest to the handle and wrap the dull part in duct tape to protect your finger. Even thusly modified, a small pocketknife is hardly a fearsome offensive weapon.

Short-bladed lockbacks would be essentially useless for trying to punch through an aircraft window, because of the multiple panes that would have to be penetrated.

No Molded Handles
This rule goes way beyond ‘a little bit silly’ because it specifies a cosmetic feature that has sweet F-A to do with lethality. Well-textured handles can provide a more secure grip than finger grooves, yet rubberized grips are not prohibited.

Because they don’t look scary. The new rules don’t ban lethal knives, they only ban scary-looking knives, and this is classic Feel-Good Security Theater.

No Box Cutters
I’m not just making this up about box cutters being too symbolic: TSA spokesman David Castelveter admitted that they will remain prohibited because there’s ‘too much emotion’ associated with them.

Emotions should not govern public policy. The emotional compulsion to ‘ban the instrumentalities of the most recent outrage’ is typical of reactionary hoplophobes. The federal Switchblade Act was passed not too long after West Side Story was released (and probably saved exactly nobody in more than 50 years) and we all see what’s happened to AR-15s after Newtown.

The proper question should be how useless would this knife be in slaughtering passengers or taking control of the aircraft?

If the answer is ‘pretty darn useless’ then it’s not a threat to aircraft security and it shouldn’t be prohibited. If the answer is ‘that could bring down the plane’ or ‘that looks like something Toshiro Mifune carried in Yojimbo‘ then it belongs on the ground or in the baggage compartment.

‘Nuff said.




  1. Armchair Command'oh says:

    I agree with you totally. As for the 2.36 inches, it was chosen because that is what other countries use as their standard (6 cm). It’s still an arbitrary standard, just international arbitrary.

  2. Jack says:

    The window breach concern for long blades is a bit of a fallacy. Generally, the only person likely to get sucked out of a shattered window on a jet at altitude is the idiot breaching it. That’s presuming the whole window goes at once, and even then, only likely if he’s not wearing his seatbelt. Otherwise, the worst that is likely is some loose papers and blankets take a long ride down, and a bunch of people get popped ears and maybe a nose bleed and have to use the oxygen masks as the pilot makes an emergency descent to breathable air.

    1. Aharon says:

      I was once on a Continental Flight when the cabin de-pressurized and the oxygen masks fell down. We made an emergency landing in South Dakota. I vaguely recall getting drunk in the airport bar with some woman I met on the plane.

    2. David PA/NJ says:

      If the stringers in the fuselage near the breached window are already nearing failure do to typical metal fatigue then it’s possible for an entire section of fuselage to burst off. Unlikely but conceivable. A single busted window is very unlikely to bring down a plane, if that is the only ailment.

  3. jwm says:

    I’m at a loss to figure why I would need a knife in the cabin of a passenger plane. On that rare occasion when I fly, and I try to make it as rare as possible, I simply put whatever blade I’m taking with me into the checked baggage. No fuss, no muss and when I claim my bag at the destination I retrieve my knife.

    1. SeaCreature says:

      What if you’re not checking baggage? I can usually get away with just using carry-on for a 2 – 3 day trip. In that case it would be nice to keep your knife in your pocket when you board, yeah?

      1. jwm says:

        Good point, SeaCreature. In my experience my system works well for me. I try not to fly and when I do it’s for more than a week. I always wind up checking bags. Especially if my wife is with me.

    2. SubZ says:

      I generally carry a knife everywhere. To me, it’s a tool not a weapon. But with the rules, I’ll continue to put my edc in checked bags. A non-locking knife is almost useless…

  4. supergrover says:

    i’ve read Uncle Sam’s press release; it looks like this policy has been written so swiss army knives and other gadgets don’t clog up TSA lines or cause all sorts of over reactions

  5. JAS says:

    Breaching the cockpit was the critical component of the 911 disasters. No pocket knife of normal length could do that these days, the doors are reinforced. So boarding with a pocket knife is really a moot point as far as taking over an aircraft nowadays. And going through an aircraft window with a pocket knife is a lot tougher than most think. Those things are stout.

    1. B says:

      Are those carbide glass breaker/ sheet metal punch markers legal for carry on airplanes? Seems if you want to break a window you ought to use the right tool.

  6. Tommy Knocker says:

    Ok guys I love the new site. As a knife guy I am expecting some of the usual side dishes of tactical pens and sundry survival/emergency tools.

    Plus if you don’t pay proper homage to Randall..well I’m gonna be really pissed 🙂

  7. SeaCreature says:

    I’m excited about the new site. Nice job guys!

  8. QL says:

    Anybody have a list handy of good TSA-compliant knives?

  9. JAS says:

    Reinforced cockpit doors make the knife rule obsolete. And the windows are really tough as well – knives wont get trough them. I always carried a knife along with hooks, and all that fishing entails on board prior to 911 because I fly fished at the locations I went to and I never checked baggage.

  10. JFF says:

    The number of comments is not showing up.

  11. SeaCreature says:

    I’m hoping that Sypderco and some of the other manufacturers will design TSA-compliant knives. Kinda like Spyderco does with the UK-compliant folder.

  12. JJ says:

    TSA allows knitting needles – far more lethal than a less than 3 inch non-locking bladed knife.

  13. Matt in FL says:

    I think it’s pretty silly that under the new rules, my not-threatening-to-anyone EDC Kershaw Chive, with its 1-15/16″ blade, is still verboten, because it has a scary liner lock and the blade is ~3/4″ across. My knife doesn’t even threaten cardboard boxes!

    This site needs a mobile version.

    Edit to add: Haha, it got the mobile version after I hit Post, after I’d been reading for 20 minutes.

  14. 2hotel9 says:

    I stopped flying long ago, simply because I had to disarm just to get on the bloody thing.I carry a Buck 110 on belt and a Kershaw Vapor clipped in my pocket and in all the years I been carrying they ain’t never jumped up and attacked anybody. This “rule” is just more touchy feely BS.

  15. IdahoPete says:

    And if anyone here thinks the TSA agent at the screening booth will NOT decide that your high-end, $100 folder is 2.37 inches long (“sorry, gotta confiscate that”), you are obviously delusional (“hey, I trust my government”). If you have to carry a knife on a plane, carry a cheap one. When I was still forced to travel by airplane instead of driving, I always packed cheap POS Chinese folding lockblade in my luggage. That way, when the TSA screener decided to root through my luggage, I wasn’t going to lose anything I cared about. And I at least had some kind of edged tool at my destination if they did not take it.

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TSA Pocketknife Policy: Much Ado About Nothing

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