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04 March 2011

Why box cutters found on a jetBlue flight is not a cause for concern

The recent news about a pair of box cutters being found on a jetBlue flight may at first seem frightening, but it is probably not a cause for concern for the average passenger. Last Saturday, on February 26th, several box cutters fell from the carry on bag of a passenger on jetBlue flight 837 shortly before the aircraft was due to depart New York's JFK airport for a flight to the Dominican Republic.

A flight attendant who saw the box cutters fall out of the bag informed the captain. The passengers were evacuated, the aircraft searched, and the passengers rescreened before the aircraft was allowed to depart. The passenger who owned the box cutters, who was reportedly a factory worker from New Jersey, was interviewed by authorities and released without being charged.

Why box cutters are a big deal
According the the 9/11 Commission Report (see page 9), a passenger on American Airlines flight 77 (which was deliberately crashed into the Pentagon) reported that the hijackers were armed with box cutters. The Commission did not mention whether such weapons were used on the the other three hijacked flights. Although knives with blades less than four inches (about 10 cm) in length were allowed in the passenger cabin prior to 9/11, knives of any length have since joined a long list of items banned from the passenger cabin.

The TSA, which was formed after 9/11, has numerous procedures in place to prevent knives, box cutters, and other contraband from entering the secure area of the airport. No security procedure is perfect, and clearly in this case the procedures did not work. Ann Davis, a spokesperson for TSA, stated that three screeners will be disciplined and given remedial training for failing to spot the box cutters. She did not mention if TSA also considered changing any of their current procedures. If procedures are changed, it is unlikely that the public will be notified, unless of course TSA accidentally releases sensitive security information to the general public, as they did in late 2009, when they released for public review a report on security procedures without completely deleting the most sensitive security information.

Why box cutters are not a big deal
While box cutters can certainly be used as a weapon, and keeping them off airplanes is a good idea, the fact that some box cutters accidentally ended up on the jetBlue flight did not expose passengers to any danger because there was no plot by any individual or group to cause harm to the aircraft or its occupants. There are many other reasons why the presence of box cutters should not be of great concern to the flying public:
  • Knives and other potential weapons are readily available in the airport terminal or allowed on board by TSA: While the TSA thoroughly screens any individual who wants to access the secure area of an airport terminal, there are many items that the TSA allows in the passenger cabin of aircraft or that are available in the terminal that could be used as weapons. Items which are currently allowed in the passenger cabin include matches, cigarette lighters, screwdrivers that are shorter than seven inches (18 cm) long, and sharp pointed scissors less than four inches (10 cm) long. Also, while passengers and flight crews may be prohibited from taking knives into the secure area of an airport terminal, the restaurants, bars, and other eating establishments in the secure area of an airport will likely have knives and many other potential weapons at hand.

  • Additional layers of security added after 9/11: In addition to hardened cockpit doors, and updated flight crew and cabin crew procedures for preventing or dealing with attempted hijackings, some flight may also have armed federal air marshals or armed flight crew members.

  • Passengers more likely to confront a hijacker: Prior to 9/11, hijackers may have had many motivations for taking control of an aircraft, including killing passengers or taking them as hostages, but with rare exceptions like the 1987 hijacking of a Pacific Southwest Airlines airliner, forcing the aircraft to crash was not a goal. In the pre-9/11 era, passengers and crews would comply with hijacker demands, rather than attempting to intervene. Since 9/11, passengers have consistently demonstrated a willingness to immediately confront hijackers, including Richard Ried (the Shoe Bomber), who attempted to set off an explosive on an American Airlines flight in December 2001, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the Underwear Bomber), who attempted to set off a bomb on a Northwest Airlines flight in December 2009.

  • TSA security procedures are not designed to be 100% effective: As last year's public outcry over invasive TSA search procedures illustrated, the TSA has to balance the need to have a secure air transportation system with the need to have procedures that reduce risks from hijacking and sabotage, while at the same time not exposing air travelers to other kinds of unacceptable risks, including invasions of privacy and exposure to radiation from full-body scanners. In the recent jetBlue incident, the box cutters in the carry on bag were not spotted by either the screening devices used for carry on bags or by the TSA screeners who presumably should have searched the bag and found the box cutters. Even after additional training, there is no guarantee that those screeners, or any other airport screening professional, will be able to find every banned item.

Bonus Video - Space Shuttle launch seen from airliner
Below is a video of Space Shuttle Discovery's final launch (STS-133) on 24 February 2011. This has no bearing on any airline safety or security issue, this is just plain fun to watch. Please enjoy.

Photo: Duke Green
Video: NeilMonday


  1. While box cutters in carry-on luggage is not a cause for concern, you can apply some of the arguments to a loaded gun.

    What is a cuase for concern is the amount of wasted money, time, and the erosion of our constitutional rights.

  2. Why was he carrying the box cutters to begin with if it's a well known fact that they are not supposed to be on any flight under any circumstances.