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One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Drunk Passenger and TSA's Carry-On Policy

The protests – familiar, uncreative, duplicative – surrounding the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) most recent decision regarding the prohibited items list, and the accompanying press reporting, focuses solely on TSA’s responsibilities.

The public debate has failed to consider that the airports, airlines, local law enforcement, and the FAA bear responsibilities for and authority to ensure the safety and security of passengers and flight crew. Crew members possess the authority to deny boarding and eject passengers – presumably after landing. And the FAA enforces and prosecutes laws and regulations protecting flight crews.

At the House Homeland Security Committee’s hearing last week, Assistant Secretary for TSA John Pistole took questions from members about the policy change. Those opposed presented a typical argument: no blades equals no stabbings, ergo why do this? It makes sense…outside of the context of a risk analysis, which weighs threat, vulnerability, and consequence.

These congressional members and others see no reason to open up the secure area to small knives, which, they argue, creates vulnerability. And they’re right. But TSA, in allocating its resources and focusing its mission, has to also mix threat and consequence into the equation.

Since 9/11, Mr. Pistole testified we know of one high-jacking attempt with a knife – a plastic knife. We also know of more than half a dozen attempts using explosives: in shoes, disguised as toner cartridges and worn as underpants. This is the threat, far more so than blades and baseball bats.

As for consequence, explosives would result in the greatest loss of life and property. Locked cockpit doors, air marshals, armed pilots, and passengers ready to pounce if someone mistakes the cockpit door for the bathroom significantly reduces the odds that a catastrophe could be caused by blade-bearing terrorists.

Yet, the threat of stabbing to flight attendants or passengers remains. Recognizing that most people, even those with knives, do not run around stabbing others, from whom does the non-explosive threat stem? In short, drunks on planes.

In 2012, the FAA recorded 101 “unruly passenger” incidents. The number has been on a steady decline since 2004, when it exceeded 300. Airlines report hundreds more passengers are denied boarding. And in extreme cases, flights have been diverted to remove these passengers. The common denominator for the majority of these incidents is inebriation.

Now, let’s plug this “intelligence” into our risk analysis equation. It looks like the best way to reduce threats presented by passengers wielding knives is to deny them alcohol.

There is a frozen margarita’s chance in hell that airports and airlines will stop serving adult beverages. Thankfully. But if the TSA’s critics, the same ones preaching risk-based security, have the ability to reduce a known risk and refuse to do so, well, their criticism rings as hollow as an empty bottle of beer.

Jeff Sural serves as counsel in the Legislative & Public Policy Group at Alston & Bird, LLP. He will focus his practice on homeland security and transportation matters on Capitol Hill and in federal government agencies. Read More