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Now boarding at Gate 6C: knives

The Transportation Security Administration announced Tuesday that beginning next month, airline passengers will once again be allowed to carry small pocket knives on U.S. planes. Blades that are no longer than 2.36 inches and no wider than 1/2 inch will be permitted, along with sports equipment such as hockey sticks and pool cues.

The changes will permit airport screeners to concentrate on bigger threats, such as looking for bomb components, said TSA head John Pistole, who explained that the new rules would save on time and labor. Plus, as security experts note, passengers with knives don’t pose a threat to pilots, who are protected by reinforced cockpit doors.

To which our initial thought is: Thanks a lot, TSA.

Really, now that pilots are separate and safe behind their fortified doors, it’s OK if things get a little medieval back in coach? Or maybe this is a new NRA-style approach to safety – the best defense against a bad guy with a pool cue is a good guy with a hockey stick?

The new measures aren’t going over well with some. Families of 9/11 victims are angry, as are airline union reps, who chided the TSA for apparently forgetting that passenger safety rules were designed for, well, the safety of the passengers.

But is safety really being compromised?

The TSA’s decision is part of a new effort, called “risk-based security.” As Pistole explained to the Observer’s editorial board in January, the agency is trying to find an appropriate balance between protection and convenience. While passengers appreciate that no domestic flights have been victim of terrorist attacks since 9/11, travelers have come to resent long security lines coupled with invasive pat-downs and x-ray machines, he said. The TSA’s goal: Make screening efficient and less onerous, for both passengers and staffers.

To that end, the agency is giving modified screening to travelers under age 12 and over age 75, and it’s expanding a PreCheck program that allows prescreened travelers to keep shoes and jackets on and leave laptops in their luggage while passing through airport detection devices. The TSA also has gradually re-introduced previously banned items such as cigarette lighters and matches. And now, knives.

Pistole says terrorists are still a concern, but the TSA is taking a calculated approach to where the risks truly are. That may be troublesome to travelers who understandably see safety through a 9/11 lens, but the reality is that items like small knives were allowed on planes for decades, and on-board stabbings were not an issue.

Yes, times have changed, and copycat criminals might see new opportunity in the new rules. But theoretically, a passenger with a Bic pen and bad intentions could also inflict a lot of damage. At what point does protecting ourselves become impractical?

TSA officials, in letting knives on board, are making the same kind of safety calculation all of us make – except presumably fortified with data. It’s a reasonable nod to convenience while maintaining a reasonable amount of safety.

And we sure hope they’re right.

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