Prohibited carry-ons

TSA's list revisions reflect risk assessment

The list of items that airline passengers are prohibited from carrying on to planes is lengthy to the point of being exhaustive. Many of its inclusions are things we can all take comfort in knowing they are not stowed in our neighbor's brief case, and really have no business being accessed during flight: nunchucks, throwing stars, cattle prods and meat cleavers among the least necessary for in-flight comfort. There are, though, some gray areas in the limitations the Transportation Safety Administration places on passengers and the agency has shown a willingness to review and recalibrate those restrictions.

Beginning in April, travelers will be free to carry on several previously banned items including hockey and lacrosse sticks, toy bats, ski poles, billiard cues, up to two golf clubs, and knives whose blades do not lock and with blades six centimeters or less in length and less than half an inch wide. Presumably TSA has determined that these items do not significantly compromise traveler safety to the level of their banned brethren - a cohort including actual baseball bats, cricket bats and box cutters as well as sabers, ice axes and swords. Whether that is actually the case is a question not entirely answered, but if it facilitates TSA's accomplishing its goal to "better focus their efforts on finding higher threat items such as explosives," it has the potential to increase safety as well as passengers' convenience.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, TSA was formed to improve safety for travelers and airline personnel. Doing so has required the agency to balance that goal - and the restrictions implicit in it - against travelers' freedom. It has not always been an easy task, and the temptation to overreact to an incident or perceived threat is strong, given the attacks that catalyzed TSA's existence. The agency is often criticized for issuing mandates seen as overly permissive, restrictive, or arbitrary depending on the critic's perspective and each has had merit at various times. The challenge is to subject the requirements to frequent review as well as keep the agency's overarching goals in sharp focus. With Tuesday's revisions, TSA demonstrates its commitment to that process.

The announcement has not pleased everyone. Unions representing flight attendants have criticized the relaxed rules saying that the items can be dangerous in the wrong hands. They are probably right, but the same could be said for most items - including some already allowed such as screwdrivers up to seven inches long - as well as those not normally considered to be dangerous. A laptop power cord, put to ill use, could be deadly, for example. Scenarios abound.

There is a litany of items that are obviously inappropriate for an airplane's passenger cabin, and TSA has those well covered. The nuances around lesser threats will always be a work in progress and the agency must continually analyze those margins to do its best to ensure passenger, pilot and flight attendant safety while also not being overly restrictive on individual freedoms. It is an equation that will never fully balance, but working the math must continue.