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Editorial: Knives and hockey sticks on airliners? Really?

New TSA regulations state that it is now

New TSA regulations state that it is now permissible to bring a small knife (like this Swiss army knife) onto planes. (March 5, 2013) Credit: Newsday/ Thomas A. Ferrara

It's the question that's baffling a nation:

Why has the U.S. Transportation Security Administration suddenly decided it's all right to let passengers carry small pocket knives, toy baseball bats, hockey sticks, pool cues, ski poles, lacrosse sticks and up to two golf clubs onto airliners?

"It's an intelligence-based, risk-based decision," declared a TSA spokeswoman. What does that mean? Aren't most TSA decisions?

It will bring the United States into compliance with International Civil Aviation Organization standards, explained a TSA statement. But why is that a priority? The American rules are stronger.

At best, the policy appears arbitrary, and at worst, dangerous. People with knives, pool cues and ski poles can inflict a lot of damage in a crowded cabin, even if the pilots are safely locked in the cockpit.

Where's the broad vision about what is essential to stop terrorists and what doesn't really matter? The decision just seemed to burst into the media from out of the ether while we're still taking off our shoes, submitting to full body scans and measuring our shampoo bottles.

It's not enough simply to announce a rules change. A policy of this magnitude needs context and a full explanation. It has to make sense.

Blowback was swift, certain and predictable.

Calling the change dangerous, the Transport Workers Union -- on behalf of 10,000 Southwest Airlines flight attendants -- said the policy was designed to make "the lives of TSA staff easier but not make flights safer." The Flight Attendants Union Coalition, representing 90,000 workers nationally, called it outrageous.

If the TSA was hoping to win the confidence of a tired, confused and fed-up flying public, it missed the mark spectacularly.

The agency has made genuine improvements in recent years. It has dropped the requirement for children 12 and younger to remove their shoes at airport security checks. It has dropped the rule forcing travelers 75 and older to remove light jackets and shoes. It is allowing some frequent fliers to go through special security lines at certain airports.

But really, TSA -- knives in the cabins?

The agency needs to come up with a more convincing argument for its latest change -- or it should drop the whole idea.