Knives with blades shorter than five centimetres would normally be allowed onto an aircraft
September 12, 2001 8:09 AM   Subscribe

Knives with blades shorter than five centimetres would normally be allowed onto an aircraft, according to Mal Dunn "who headed the aviation security division of the [Australian] Civil Aviation Safety Authority. 'I'm not convinced that this was necessarily caused by lax security. My experience is that US airports are usually very diligent,' he said. 'The principle of people carrying knives is pretty clear and internationally recognised. The criteria are associated with the length of the knife; anything over two inches [five centimetres] long is considered dangerous and is usually taken off the individual." I was dumbfounded to hear these planes had been hijacked with knives, but reading the preceding still chills me. Perhaps, the time has arrived to rethink these measures as they appear to be so ignorant in hindsight.
posted by mischief (45 comments total)
I've carried a small utility knife for years. It's the most useful thing I have, and at no time have I ever considered it a weapon, even in a defensive sense. The blade measures about 7 cm, or 2 and 3/4 inches. I've carried the thing with me on planes numerous times, usually by dropping it into a carry-on bag before I send it through the x-ray. Easy. But then, I'm always flying out of Boston Logan...
posted by videodrome at 8:21 AM on September 12, 2001

I don't understand why all planes aren't manned by sky marshalls.

I know it makes people nervous to have Armed Airplane cops aboard, but damn....they'd certainly be able to stop hijackers armed with box cutters....
posted by glenwood at 8:25 AM on September 12, 2001

did they serve meals on the flights? steak knives could have been used, for all anyone knows. while a box knife would have bee legal to bring on the flights, steak knives would have blades measuring probably 4 or 5 inches in length, and could be sufficiently sharp enough.

the sky marshal program is interesting, and i would willingly pay the extra $20 or so per flight for their salary and training. not sure about open fire in a presurized cabin, but i definately would not want to be trapped on a suicide mission with no chance of retaliation against on-board terrorists.
posted by mich9139 at 8:25 AM on September 12, 2001

What scares me is this: how much could that possibly help? The problem here is percentages. I can't guess at what the actual percentage of flights with "incidents" is, but I believe this was the first hijacking over US airspace in 10 years. That's thousands, even millions of flights compared for every potential threat. It'll be the same thing as having a security guard in a department store, snoozing away on his stool.
posted by Sinner at 8:29 AM on September 12, 2001

Regarding shooting aboard a pressurized plane: there are so-called "safety rounds" that are designed to break apart when they hit anything solid. I believe that the Israelis use them for their airline cops.

Obviously there's no guarantee.
posted by aramaic at 8:32 AM on September 12, 2001

true, there is no guarantee with those rounds. also, in a fire fight like that, the casualty rate would be very high. the planes are crowded with people, would become hysterical very easily, hostages would be easily grabbed, and most likely have to be sacrificed to take out the hijacker.

as for percentages, we actually have had a pretty safe aviation environment. mosty likely, though, it's because nations haven't tried much with us. many other nations do have the sky marshall program in place, but they also face threats much more often. many of the nations are in a constant state of unrest, while the u.s. has seen itself as pretty safe, with its homeland not immediately a target.
posted by mich9139 at 8:39 AM on September 12, 2001

Sure, this is the first successful hijacking in the US in ten years, but how many attempts have we known nothing about? Interviews on CNN noted yesterday that there are great numbers of terrorist attempts foiled every year - there's no need (they say) for the public to know about them. How accurate is that? I think it's time for the public to know a little more and perhaps suffer through a bit of fear as a result - it would go a long way towards letting the general populace know exactly where we stand in the global scheme. I have to admit, though, that I'd be frightened to know exactly how many unsuccesful terrorist actions go down - the number is probably a lot higher than one would guess.

Granted, this veers away from the threat specifically discussing airline actions.
posted by videodrome at 8:40 AM on September 12, 2001

Last Christmas, I received, among other things, a small swiss army knife designed to go on a keychain. Since then, I always cary it with me and I've taken it with me on many flights. I put it in the buckett along with my pocket change and no security guard has ever looked twice at it. The blade is 3 1/2 cm.

Where there's a will, there's a way. People in prisons routinely sharpen bits of plastic into makeshift knives. The same could have happened aboard this flight. And it wouldn't be hard to conceil such a weapon in a cary on bag.
posted by wheat at 8:45 AM on September 12, 2001

Two of my former co-workers have just been confirmed as being on Flight 11. I grieve for them and their familys.

My point....

How could anyone possibly know every scenario by which a terrorist might attack? In my opinion it is impossible, where there is a will there is way. Once we change our security and plug up the holes, terrorists will find better ways to attack.

Other countries across the world deal with this type of event on a daily basis, living constantly in panic and fear. The fact that we have few events of this magnitude in this country is amazing.
posted by Happy_Shoes at 8:50 AM on September 12, 2001

not sure about open fire in a presurized cabin Tasser gun's have the capacity to stun the offender and are a lot safer in a closed/confined quaters..

Marshalls, would be a good idea even better if they were plain clothed...
posted by monkeyJuice at 8:54 AM on September 12, 2001

Airport security has always surprised me. I always have a small pocket knife on my keychain, and like others in this thread I don't know what I would do without it. I use it for little things all the time. I have carried it onto quite a few airplanes, without problem. What really surprised me last time I was travelling (about 6 months ago) was that airport security wouldn't let me board the plane with a stick of RAM on my keychain. They wouldn't accept that the RAM was simply a old piece of computer hardware that I keep on my key chain. In the end I had to throw it out, but they made no mention of the pocket knife.
posted by bytecode at 9:04 AM on September 12, 2001

i agree happy_shoes, and i'm sorry for your loss.

better measures should be put in place to keep weapons off of planes, but there is really nothing we can do, short of infringing on the civil liberties of the passengers -- like sedating everyone before the flight -- about keeping highjackers out of the skies.

If a highjacker wants to get a plane he/she will. what can we do? have mandatory martial arts tests for everyone bearding?

my point is that it isn't knives of guns or weapons that are the issue here. if you've got a guy with the skills of bruce lee, he doesn't need no weapons...
posted by jedwin at 9:06 AM on September 12, 2001

I very much doubt that pocket knives were the weapons used on these flights.
posted by argybarg at 9:16 AM on September 12, 2001

If I have to start tossing my beloved Swiss army knife in my checked luggage, rather than tossing it into my carry-on before I go through the metal detector, that's only a minor inconvenience. Still, I wonder how much good you can accomplish with any type of weapon check; it will just force the determined to be more clever in their choice of weapons. Raven and his glass knives in the novel Snow Crash come to mind, but there are enough real-world tales of improvised weapons in America's prisons to consider. At this moment, I have a tiny multi-tool on my keyring which includes a short but sharp cutting blade; to a casual glance, it looks like nothing more than a longer-than-usual key.

Sky Marshalls, on the other hand, seem like a worthy idea.
posted by harmful at 9:17 AM on September 12, 2001

How about strong lockable doors between the cockpit and the rest of the flight that are kept locked for the duration of the flight?

Seems to me that an airplane should take at least as much safety precautions as a NYC cab!
posted by srboisvert at 9:20 AM on September 12, 2001

"Where there's a will, there's a way."

The only way you can guarantee that hijackers will not seize the cockpit is to remove access to it. Seal up the door. Make to cockpit larger, add facilities for the pilots, and make the only access to the cockpit be from outside the plane.
posted by Tenuki at 9:26 AM on September 12, 2001

"I very much doubt that pocket knives were the weapons used on these flights."

Well, argybarg, current reports are saying that something like a prison shiv was used - these were shaped plastic handles with embedded razor blades. Not much different from a pocket knife in scale.

The thing to remember is that there's a threat of greater force. The people on the planes likely didn't know what the attackers had. If they managed to overpower the cabin it really doesn't matter because then, as we've seen, the weapon is the plane. In addition, I really doubt that it was made clear to the passengers and crew that these were to be suicide runs. I'm sure they all thought it was a lighter point-making move - "do what we tell you and no-one will be hurt". But there I go - speculating. It doesn't matter. It's done.
posted by videodrome at 9:27 AM on September 12, 2001

if we lock the cockpit who's to say the terrorists wouldn't just start killing people until the pilot comes out?
posted by bytecode at 9:31 AM on September 12, 2001

a chilling article from Michael Moore on the current lack of security in airports and really how easy it is to get away with things.
posted by loukas_c at 9:31 AM on September 12, 2001

I wouldn't be surprised if the knives they were using weren't even metal. Anything made of high-density plastic (a knife, gun or whatever) could be carried right through a metal detector!

I agree that a NYC cab seems better protected than a passenger airline. Perhaps pilots should even enter through a seperate entrance and there should be no way for people to move back and forth between the cockpit and the passenger compartments (of course this means new planes). I think a sky marshall or arming the flight-crew might not be a bad idea either.
posted by Stuart_R at 9:32 AM on September 12, 2001

Some FAA or other avionics talking head was on CNN explaining why this wasn't feasible. Something about pressure differences, etc. I'm not sure. It didn't seem very convincing...

But think about it: if terrorists just say that they want in so they can go to some other country, etc. (which they might well have done yesterday) - and are shooting crew members and passengers one by one - those captains will open that door.
posted by Sinner at 9:38 AM on September 12, 2001

Tenuki -- I understand one of the reasons the doors are flimsy is to prevent issues with depressurization from happening, not clear what the issues are. I'm sure there's an easy to engineer way of securing the cockpit while allowing for the pressure needs.

In anycase. Those of you who are saying that people will always find a way are missing the point. It may be true, but what we need to do is to make it harder for people to hijack the planes. We won't ever make it perfect, but we evidently need to make it harder.

Point well taken that this is the first hijacking in 10 years, we've evidently made it fairly hard. But evidently not hard enough.

The sophistication of the attacks that people speak of do not refer to the sophistication of sneaking on board and commandeering the planes. Everything I've read says that hijackers did that very easily -- they passed through normal airport security without raising eyebrows because their weapons were of a size considered harmless.

I think it's clear now that they are not harmless.

For the record, federal guidelines keep people from taking knives 10 cm in length or longer, not 5. I take my leatherman regularly, and I think it's closer to 3 inches.

Of all the measures our government could take to make the skies safer, the easiest and most likely to prevent this kind of attack is this: keep knives off airplanes. Reduce the minimum size to 1 inch/2cm. Wanna take a knife with you? Check it.

Simple, easy, does not impinge on constitutional rights. We already have a system that's prevented attacks with bombs and guns and what not for at least a decade. We now know our assumptions about the threat of small knives are wrong. Fix it.
posted by daver at 9:41 AM on September 12, 2001

According to Mrs. Olson's cell phone call, the hijackers were using box cutters, and other cell phone accounts described the hijackers as stabbing the flight attendants. One trained sky marshal on each flight could have prevented most, if not all, of the disaster.

So what if hijackers find other methods? Is that any reason to disallow all blades and other tools from being carried aboard an aircraft?
posted by mischief at 9:48 AM on September 12, 2001

Think about it. Glass and ceramic kniwves have already been discussed, but how hard would it be for a trained terrorist to make some sort of shiv that would fit inside the case of a laptop or a discman. Prison inmates do this all the time, despite enormously invasive security.

Stopping people from getting on with a gun is something somewhat different, at least. But knives? I think the barrier was psychological and is now breached.
posted by Sinner at 9:57 AM on September 12, 2001

I would expect tightened security around knives to include blades of any (most?) types. How about we compromise and say over 1 inch?

Could somebody still sneak a weapon on the plane? Yes. Could somebody do what they did yesterday? It'd be much harder.

Having a knife with you makes things easier. Maybe it even saves your life when the plane crashes and your seat belt buckle jams.

But really, this is a very minor inconvenience for the safety of a lot of people.

Skymarshals w/ tazers would be a good idea too. But hey, some idiot is going to figure out how to wear grounded tinfoil to foil those as well.

Make it harder to stab the flight crew.
posted by daver at 10:03 AM on September 12, 2001

Just for knowledge's sake: a box cutter is no longer than 1 inch long. but they are essentially heavy-duty razor blades and can do a great deal of damage while remaining very grippable. I have cut myself badly with only a slight nic from a box cutter.

My question is this: why in the world would anyone want to take a boxcutter (normally) on a flight? wouldn't this look the tineist bit suspicious to those doing the x-ray security check? I wouldn't think a box cutter is a very normal thing to bring on a flight...A Swiss Army knife/Leatherman/pocketknife would be much more normal than a boxcutter.
posted by raintea at 10:07 AM on September 12, 2001

Sinner -- you're right, you won't be able to completley prevent it. But you can make it harder.

There are ceramic guns too, not to mention chemical weapons, biological weapons, and the long hailed Kung-Fu which terrorists could use to attack planes and flight crews.

They don't. Yesterday they used knives. You want to ignore that?
posted by daver at 10:08 AM on September 12, 2001

The reason they were able to overpower the plane with knives is because they didn't simply threaten people - "Take us to New York or I will stab you with my little knife!" - they just got down to business and killed people. In at least one instance, that was enough to lure the pilot out to try and help the other crew members and passengers.
posted by SiW at 10:09 AM on September 12, 2001

One thought here is that maybe the doctrine needs to be changed. Find a way to secure the cockpit from the rest of the plane, and make it a matter of policy, law and training: nobody opens that door before the flight is over for any reason.

If/when flight attendants or passengers die as a result, then it is a horrible but acceptable result. We don't like the calculus of human lives in this country, but I think 3 or 5 or 50 dead people is better than 500 or 5000.
posted by Irontom at 10:37 AM on September 12, 2001

daver - ignore it? Absolutely not. According to CNN, the Transportation Secretary (Minetta) has already banned all knives on planes, as well as curbside check-ins. My point is just that I don't think anyone ever realized you could hijack a plane with just knives before. Now that people know, banning them is certainly a good step, but I doubt it will be enough in the long run. A little knowledge, someone said, is a dangerous thing.
posted by Sinner at 10:40 AM on September 12, 2001

And as a friend and I were just discussing, a door is not the answer, a wall is. The cabin simply needs to be separated completely, removing the possibility of the captains being influenced. Does anyone know why a door is NEEDED?
posted by Sinner at 10:43 AM on September 12, 2001

if we lock the cockpit who's to say the terrorists wouldn't just start killing people until the pilot comes out?

Which is exactly what it appears they did.

Short of making people fly on planes stark naked and without luggage, they will not be able to stop people from fashioning weapons, even in mid-flight. Smash one of those small wine or liquor bottles -- instant weapon. Plastic silverware -- instant weapon. Piece of hi-test fishline -- instant weapon.
posted by briank at 10:44 AM on September 12, 2001

even if you seal the doors, separate the cabins, etc. then it's just a matter of getting an inside guy. these guys were already well trained pilots, so they almost certainly had at one time been commercial airline pilots, who's to say that one of them wasn't one of the pilots of these planes? in a sealed cabin the pilot could simply kill the copilot and then no-one, not even the passengers would know they were headed toward a building. you then cut down the number of terrorists needed to one per plane, rather than a team of 3-5.
posted by rorycberger at 10:48 AM on September 12, 2001

rorycberger - a good counter to my point about building a wall, although it sort of proves my other argument. The paradigm is now shifted. This was not part of the game before.
posted by Sinner at 10:56 AM on September 12, 2001

Now that i think about it more, i think the wall is the best idea, but pilots should have to go through much much more invasive security, both in terms of extensive background checks (anybody know how much they go through now?), and physical checks of what they carry onto the plane. going through the metal detectors like everyone else won't cut it anymore...i'm thinking they need to be patted down by a police officer on their way into the aircraft.
posted by rorycberger at 11:14 AM on September 12, 2001

Now that i think about it more, i think the wall is the best idea, but pilots should have to go through much much more invasive security, both in terms of extensive background checks (anybody know how much they go through now?), and physical checks of what they carry onto the plane. going through the metal detectors like everyone else won't cut it anymore...i'm thinking they need to be patted down by a police officer on their way into the aircraft.
posted by rorycberger at 11:15 AM on September 12, 2001

Why pat down pilots? As far as I know there has only been one case of a commercial pilot crashing his plane on purpose.
posted by jonnyp at 11:36 AM on September 12, 2001

There was a great analogy a few months ago about improving air safety, sadly I can't remember where. Imagine being a teacher, when a bunch of armed men burst into your classroom, and say that they'll kill everyone in your class unless you tell them the capital of Paraguay. You don't know, and as a result they kill all your students. So now teachers all across the country go through mandatory training on world capitals, just in case this happens again. But a month later, a bunch of terrorists burst into your classrom, and this time they want to know the square root of 73,524, or all the kids get it.

Planes have been hijacked (and banks robbed) by people with no weapons at all, who merely claim to have a bomb. Prisoners hide makeshift knives literally up their asses.

Hijackers can use one of a million kinds of weapon, but they all must plan and coordinate their activities. I think our efforts would be better spent preventing terrorists from getting on the airplane in the first place.
posted by jaek at 11:42 AM on September 12, 2001

Exactly jaek! And in a even broader view we have to somehow eliminate terrorism, because before yesterday, who the hell would have thought of using commercial airliners as huge missiles to destroy buildings, I certainly didn't. I'm sure we'll make it so they can never crash a plane into a building again, but what will they think of next?
posted by bytecode at 12:27 PM on September 12, 2001

bytecode: Tom Clancy not only thought of it, but he published the idea years ago.
posted by Jairus at 1:13 PM on September 12, 2001

Does anyone know why a door is NEEDED?

Is this an honest question? There needs to be a door because pilots, being human, occasionally need to use a lavatory or have a beverage. If there's no interior door between the cockpit and cabin they can do/have neither.
posted by Dreama at 1:34 PM on September 12, 2001

Lol Dreama.

There needs to be a door because pilots, being human, occasionally need to use a lavatory or have a beverage. If there's no interior door between the cockpit and cabin they can do/have neither.

I would have a dry mouth and wet/shit myself anyday to save even ONE life. A door is NOT needed, and thus should be replaced by a thick wall. Someone posted that we should just swallow hard and accept the people being killed off by highjackers because they can't get in the cockpit. I can't say I entirely disagree with that.

Having air marshals onboard wouldn't be sush a bad idea, seeing as the price hike (tickets) would only be around at max 15-20$ but if you fly alot that can add up real quick.
posted by HoldenCaulfield at 1:58 PM on September 12, 2001

Someone suggested over lunch at work that one possible tactic would be if the pilots had a way of depressurizing the cabin. This would force everyone to put on the emergency gas masks while at high altitude -- and keep them at their seats. Pilots could then radio in and from there the proper authorities can come up with a solution for bringing the plane down.

An interesting thought, though perhaps unfeasible in practice.
posted by linux at 5:34 PM on September 12, 2001

Good way to kill old ladies and other passengers. Not a good way to stop terrorists. Ever seen one of the scuba rescue bottles?
posted by daver at 6:10 PM on September 12, 2001

Just note on placing knives into your checked baggage. Alaska Airlines has had "alacarte" checkin, which allows you to take your non-carryon baggage to the plane, where it is placed in a forward baggage hold under the plane. You can then get your suitcase on the tarmac when disembarking, rather than having to go to the baggage claim area.

I had a dive-style knife in my suitcase, which security removed and told me I couldn't bring out to the plane. (Duh - I had forgot about it. I travel alot by car, and keep the knife in my bag all the time.)

Thankfully, I live in a small enough town that I was able to go back to the ticket desk and ask an agent to hang on to it for me until I got back from my trip (he did). It was an odd feeling walking back out of the secure area with nasty looking knife in my hand.

I will be going through my suitcase before my next flight to make sure that I've removed ANY knives, even my Swiss Army knife. It's going to be tough flying for awhile.

I will also be going through my usual carry-on bag. Since I live in a rural state and do a lot flying on small planes I've always carried a Swiss Army Knife, duct tape, space blanket, parachute cord, matches, lighter, etc. Others may want to do the same.
posted by Whistlepig at 9:02 PM on September 14, 2001

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