Starting Thursday, small tools and scissors are no longer banned from airliners as the Transportation Security Administration implements changes to its passenger screening policy.
TSA administrator Kip Hawley said that explosives pose more of a threat to the public than small scissors and tools and the change will allow screeners to focus more time and attention on keeping bombs off airplanes.
However, Congressmen Edward Markey and Joe Crowley are critical of the change, saying it's now easier for terrorists to attack the nation again. Crowley told reporters that a small screwdriver could be turned into a deadly weapon, simply by sharpening the point.
CBS News correspondent Bob Orr reports more flyers will be pulled out for random searches in TSA's effort to be less predictable and do a better job of looking for explosives. This is not expected to create more delays, however, because screeners will be opening fewer bags looking for small items.
"It is paramount to the security of our aviation system that terrorists not be able to know with certainty what screening procedures they will encounter at airports around the nation," Hawley said. "By incorporating unpredictability into our procedures and eliminating low-threat items, we can better focus our efforts on stopping individuals who wish to do us harm."
Among the items no longer prohibited from airliner cabins: scissors 4 inches or less, and tools such as screwdrivers, wrenches and pliers that are smaller than 7 inches.
When the planned changes were announced earlier this month, flight attendants and some lawmakers expressed concern that they would undermine security.
Justin Green is an attorney for the families of three flight attendants who died aboard American Airlines Flight 11, which hijackers crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. Two of the flight attendants, Bobbi Arestegui and Karen Martin, were stabbed by the terrorists. The third, Betty Ong, reported what was happening during the hijacking in a telephone call to authorities on the ground.
"The families are outraged that the TSA is planning on letting weapons back on board," Green said.
Airlines generally supported the plan. So did the pilots' largest union, the Air Line Pilots Association, and former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.
"I think we need to adjust some of the adjustments that we made right after 9/11, and I think this is a step in the right direction. We get away from weapons and start focusing on potential terrorists," Ridge said. "I think you've embedded enough security along the way that some of these things should be permitted, because it's customary for people to carry them, and I don't think it will enable them to get to the cockpit."
Bob Hesselbein, ALPA's national security committee chairman, said pilots think it's more important to focus on passengers' intent rather than what they're carrying.
"A Swiss army knife in the briefcase of a frequent flyer we know very well is a tool," Hesselbein said. "A ballpoint pen in the hands of a terrorist is a weapon."
TSA screeners this year alone have confiscated 12.6 million prohibited items, including 3 million sharp objects, according to the Homeland Security Department.
They've also taken away 8.1 million lighters, the only item prohibited by law. Congress, concerned that terrorists would have an easier time igniting a bomb with a lighter than with matches, enacted the ban. It took effect April 14.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation Committee's aviation panel, agreed with Hawley that screeners should be looking for explosives rather than small, sharp objects that could be used as weapons.
"You have a huge army of pilots that are now armed, you have significant numbers of federal air marshals, you have secure cockpit doors, you have an alert public," Mica said. "Terrorists aren't dumb, they can see what the weakness in the system is."
More than 18,000 screeners have been trained on advanced explosives detection techniques, Mica said.
But Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, a member of the Senate Commerce Committee's aviation panel, objected to the policy shift. In a letter to Hawley, she wrote that the change "could undermine the progress we have made in securing our skies since the 9/11 attacks. Security demands vigilance; we cannot become complacent."
Markey said the TSA is presenting the public a false choice. If there aren't enough screeners to check for sharp objects and bombs, he said, then more screeners should be hired.
The Association of Flight Attendants supports Markey's initiative. So does the Southwest Airlines flight attendants' union, Transport Workers Local 556.
"I have not spoken to a flight attendant at any airline that isn't outraged by this," said Thom McDaniel, the local's president.
McDaniel said the premise for the policy change is ludicrous. "They want to focus more on explosives, but they're not even mentioning that the biggest threat to commercial aviation right now is still the fact that most cargo is not screened."