Quintessential TSA stupidity: taking airline cutlery away from a pilot

Salon's Patrick Smith, author of the excellent Ask the Pilot column relates the incredibly frustrating -- and quintessential -- story of the day a surly TSA screener confiscated the airline-issue, safe-certified knife from his luggage (part of his hotel stayover emergency kit):
"No, this is no good. You can't take this."

"Why not?"

"It's serrated." He is talking about the little row of teeth along the edge. Truth be told, the knife in question, which I've had for years, is actually smaller and less sharp than the knives currently handed out by my airline to its first- and business-class customers. You'd be hard-pressed to cut a slice of toast with it.

"Oh, come on. It is not."

"What do you call these?" He runs his finger along the minuscule serrations.

"Those ... but ... they ... it ..."

"No serrated knives. You can't take this."

"But sir, how can it not be allowed when it's the same knife they give you on the plane!"

"Those are the rules."

"That's impossible. Can I please speak to a supervisor?"

"I am the supervisor."

There are those moments in life when time stands still and the air around you seems to solidify. You stand there in an amber of absurdity, waiting for the crowd to burst out laughing and the "Candid Camera" guy to appear from around the corner.

Except the supervisor is dead serious.

Realizing that I'm not getting my knife back, I try for the consolation prize, which is getting the man to admit, if nothing else, that the rule makes no sense. "Come on," I argue. "The purpose of confiscating knives is to keep people from bringing them onto planes, right? But every person on my flight was legally handed one of these knives with their meals. How can you ... I mean ... it just ... At least admit to me that it's a dumb rule."

"It's not a dumb rule."

Link (via Schneier!)


  1. These TSA numbnuts are the same sort who happily manned the ovens and showers because someone in a bigger hat told them too.

  2. I have never had a security person admit that a given rule is stupid. It’s part of the mentality apparently required to be in the security biz- or at least one the TSA wants- unthinking, unquestioning adherence to all rules. no rules can possibly be stupid or they wouldn’t have been enacted. they all, always are for the better.

    I mean, if the pilot is allowed to bring a knife onboard, he might somehow get control of the plane!

  3. It is a dumb rule. This is what happens when you give some random person with a little bit of authority. They abuse it without ever thinking.

    TSA truly reminds me of Mao’s Red Guards in Communist China during Culture Revolution. I would not be surprised if their training guides have scriptures from Mao’s Little Red Book.

    When I flew Lufthansa to Germany and back in June, all eating utensils were made of stainless steel. And, bottomless drinks and meals are included.

  4. I stongly feel if British Airways and Lufthansa (and likely others from europe that I’ve not flown) were to operate in North America, it would spell death to the local operators. Always getting food without additional fee? Free drinks? internet?

    All US based airlines can offer is the occasional (and greatly welcomed, BTW) witty hosts and hostesses.

  5. Funny, he loses his plastic weapon of destruction but I got through Laguardia without taking my liquids out of my carry on luggage. I wasn’t doing it on purpose or to prove a point, I was waiting to get to the plastic baggie station like when you use Canada Customs. I was never offered anything and figured since security is so tight these days I probably had a second screening to go through.

    Nope, just went through without any trouble at all.

  6. @TIAN #3

    “I would not be surprised if their training guides have scriptures from Mao’s Little Red Book.”

    Neither would I. Just google the story about how we used China’s manual on how to interrogate people.

  7. We must accept all instructions from an authority. We must do so in unquestioning instant compliance.
    We must not question the first two facts as they are by definition inherently unquestionable. There is no need to question anything as authority is unquestionable. If all that seems inherently logical to you? The TSA is where you need to be.

  8. The part where he calls the guy “sir”? That’s the part where I start screaming in terror.

  9. your owners do not wish you to move around. It is easier to watch you if you stay in one place. Learn your place.

  10. True, I’m not a pilot, but I had my airline cutlery confiscated by a TSA Agent. Well, I take that back, they only took the knife, I was able to keep the spoon, and the deadly fork.

  11. So there was no one above him? This man is the end all be all of the TSA? And he’s working the security line? That’s a damn lie.

    The logic of the TSA is perfection in it’s failure. If, and this is an infinitesimal ‘if’, a would be hijacker were to pull a knife on a plane they’d be pummeled by a stampede of passengers. 9/11 changed the perception people had of hijacking.

    Treating travelers like suspects and infants does not make anyone safer and empowers little tyrant bullies like this “supervisor”.

  12. Whenever I hear stories like this, I’m always reminded of this line from the first chapter of VALIS by Philip K. Dick:

    “[Fat] heard in her rational tone the harp of nihilism, the twang of the void. He was not dealing with a person; he had a reflex-arc thing at the other end of the phone line.” (underlining mine)

    the pilot couldn’t even get the TSA robot to share a bit of humanity in observing the absurdity of the situation —
    “It’s not a dumb rule.”

    Reflex-arc thing indeed.

  13. i know this is a dumb country but what do you think the actual percentage is of morons? 96-97%?
    dont know if he does it anymore but when i used to watch leno, he had these segments where he’d go out and ask the most ridiculously common sense questions to people and theyd look at him .. where am i going with this. i dont know.
    how will it stop? where will it end? will it end? or will the 3% be consumed?

  14. all you can do is endure. This too shall pass, and when it does – well, I think a web-published list of former TSA thugs would do the trick.

  15. just bring two knives screwed together, and a screwdriver to unscrew them once you get on the plane.

    You’re allowed to bring on scissors, as long as the blade is under 4 inches in length, and you’re allowed to bring on tools, as long as they’re under 7 inches in length.

    problem solved.

  16. The nuremberg defense is no longer an adequate means to describe people who are just doing their jobs. We need another term for people who actually consent to be stupid as a means of gainful employment.

  17. Dear TSA Morons,

    If your airline pilot is planning to hijack the aircraft he is flying, how will taking his little serated knife prevent him from gaining access to the cockpit?

    Maybe you should start confiscating airline pilots.

    Who’s flying this thing, anyway?

  18. Mr. Washington… I too am sorry for the state of this great country you fought for has become.

    Break all laws of time and space and come back to us and lead us to overthrow this tyrannical government.


  19. Similar thing happened to a friend of mine in the UK (also a pilot) just after 9-11. He had a pocket knife with a 2″ blade. He proceeded to have a long argument with the security person explaining that “not only did he not need a knife to take control of the plane since he was already in control there is a large fire axe under his seat and he’d use that instead” eventually the guy caved in and let him keep his knife.
    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. People are stupid.

  20. The sad part is most of the people who have to deal with the TSA don’t give a flying [expletive] about their civil liberties. They’ll gladly obey any authority figure that comes in their way. Authority should always be challenged, and authority figure should always be made to explain their reasonings and motives. This TSA agent obviously had neither reason nor motive, so I’m gonna chalk this one up to sheer stupidity. To think I know someone who’s actually EXCITED about getting to work for the TSA… Granted, she’s like 65 with a bum leg and a recent stroke… but still…

  21. #13

    Yeah. Because there’s no way they’d select only the video with stupid people in it to score laughs. That would never happen.

    So, sure…96%, 97%. Keep watching Leno.

  22. OK, here’s the problem, years ago the corporations… I mean uh… people who run this country decided that they should fund education just enough to turn out people who can blindly regurgitate simple sets of knowledge and can perform tasks without questioning them. In other words, with complete absence of free thought. Now we are beholden to this army of idiots to run our lives. This is the end, people. Time to jump ship.

  23. they ain’t stupid. They’re malicious little bullies that know damn well what they are doing, delight in it and take exceptional pleasure in preying on the weak.

  24. #3 Tian

    I don’t think Red Guard is a good analogy. Cultural Revolution was a political hysteria created by Mao to save his ass after failure of Great Leap Forward. Red Guards were ad hoc youth gangs that were given authority to roam and abuse anybody who they thought was suspicious.

    TSA is more like a security firm that was hired by a control freak. It has to adhere 100% to his rules or the job goes to someone else.

  25. @#4,

    I thought Lufthansa’s customer service was pretty lousy, except for the part where I thought a Leatherman Wave had been swiped from my checked bag, and I told them about it and they promptly sent me a check to replace it.

    Now here’s an interesting bit: many weeks later, I discovered I had actually put it in my backpack, not in my suitcase, as I had planned to do. So, I had it with me *on the plane* the whole time. Neither Addis Ababa nor Frankfurt airports caught it. Oops.

    Now, I don’t think US airports would have done any better – When I went to Johannseburg via Hong Kong via San Francisco, I had one of those little break-off-the-blade boxcutters in my backpack. Forgot it was even there. SF missed it, but HK found and confiscated it.

  26. Wat back after Sept. 11, I remember reading an interview with an Israeli security expert who had been consulted with concerning the USA’s new travel restrictions. Basically, he told them that security at El Al is not concerned with dangerous ITEMS – only dangerous PEOPLE. Having been through El Al security several times while keeping my shoes on and a coffee in my hands, I have to admit I felt well scrutinized yet never inconvenienced. Once embarrassed – “What battery operated devise do you have in your checked luggage?” “Um…a … neck massager…” (Matrix-like calm gaze of “Man-in-black dressed security agent. Pause, Pause.) “You will need that after this flight.”

    He was right, too.

  27. Admit it was a dumb rule? That sort of person would rather *die* than admit it was a “dumb rule” – even if they privately agreed.

  28. I’ve (accidentally) been through security with a knife that is quite clearly not for cutting. It was in a leather sheath which they partially opened (nearly giving me a coronary) and then replaced. I guess they thought it was a bottle opener or something.
    Their stupidity works both ways, but either way it’s bad.

  29. A few years ago (post 9/11) I flew business class from Toronto to London. They gave me a metal fork, a metal spoon, and a plastic knife. As I sat there dumbfounded at the absurdity of the situation a flight attendant saw me and exclaimed “yeah, it’s pretty stupid… those plastic ones are actually sharper than the metal ones they replaced. Also we still give you metal forks, you can stab someone with one of those and make *4* holes!”. They also gave me a glass wine glass that could easily be broken and used as a spike… Security theatre would make me laugh if it wasn’t so scary (the theatre is scary, not the threat it’s “protecting” us from)

  30. Would you really like it better if these clowns were allowed to use their own judgment and bend the rules for customer comfort?

    Customer: “I know this is a bit unorthodox but can I take this machete to the plane?”

    TSA monkey: “Certainly sir. Many frequent fliers like to bring their own cutlery.”

  31. This is not stupid. They are preparing for the scene in Blazing Saddles where Cleavon Little holds himself hostage, grabbing himself by the throat with one hand and holding a gun to his own head with the other. At any moment, some pilot may take himself hostage using a plastic fork and force himself to fly the plane off-course. He may clutch his own throat, or even clutch his leg and pull it, like I’m pulling yours.

  32. @#19

    Yeah, like George Washington would ever get elected in this day and age. Half the population doesn’t even know who he is, (“Dude, you look just like that guy on the quarter!”) and his whole government for the people platform wouldn’t exactly fit the best interests of our country’s current leadership. He’d be lucky to get a job in the mail room at the Pentagon.

  33. Nobody moves or I’ll cut the pilots’ throats with a plastic butter knife!! It’s serrated goddamnit! I’ll do it!

  34. The days of this are coming to an end, but for a few years now, questioning security practices was a good way to get into a shouting match with loyalists–you know, the ones who think loyalism is patriotism–about being soft on terrorism and dismissing 9/11 as a non-event.

    I hope to be proud to be an American someday. I was for a time during the 90s.

  35. count me among those who refuse to fly due to things like this. of course, my life doesn’t require that i go large distances in short amounts of time, so it works out okay for me…book passage on containerships ftw!

    anyone know the “rules” on bringing an empty liquid-containing-vessel with you on board? i imagine a metal water bottle would be suspect no matter what, but especially if it were, say, unmarked stainless steel.

    @34: i gotta say, i’m okay with being an american, but proud would be something else entirely. i’d be all for revolution if i thought enough folks would back me up; and i’m well aware of the irony that my attitude is the very same which keeps people from acting on things in a way that matters.

  36. TSA personnel are all ex-McDonald’s employees. It’s the only thing that could explain the stupidity. (That or they are secretly bred in underground hives cousin to cousin gen after gen)

  37. hi Ken,did you have trouble understanding the posted Moderation Policy forbidding sig. lines and the discussion we had about this? Or are you being deliberately provocative? If the later I have to question your consistency, since you invariably seem to come down on the side of the Man when it isn’t you being oppressed. Or should we have a Mandatory Sig Line Day where everyone HAS to post a sig line to give you a clear demonstration of the problems they cause?

  38. What’s best of all about this is that, as a pilot in the US, Patrick Smith is allowed to apply for a concealed-carry license and permission to take an automatic pistol aboard. (To defend the cockpit in event of a second-rate movie plot accidentally sneaking aboard.)

    Wanna bet that the TSA goon would have still confiscated the knife, but left the pistol?

  39. >How can you … I mean … it just … At least >admit to me that it’s a dumb rule.”

    Wiretap that fool.

  40. Signature lines cause problems? Really? :p

    Not trying to provoke or anything, just a bit bemused.

  41. I’m going to be a contrarian here, drawing from my study of organizational behavior.

    Let me acknowledge first that the rule is dumb (more accurately, it does not have sufficient case exceptions), and ironies abound.

    But I’d like to persuade you not to vent your wrath on the bureaucrat.

    It is a thoroughly accepted meme that bureaucrats are bureaucratic because they take vindictive pleasure in wielding their power over us, the innocent victims, because they are angry at the world for their “patheticity”.

    When this meme is invoked, it is almost invariably attached to an account of a paper-pusher who refuses to bend or break the rules on behalf of the vict….er, customer.

    But bureaucratic organizations do not hire front-line grunts to exercise such discretion, nor do they write their rules to permit such discretion. Such discretion is permitted further up the line (as the pilot clearly understood, because he asked to speak to the supervisor, but perhaps that was not high enough up the line for such discretion to be permitted).

    Bureaucracies are supposed to be rational and highly-structured. They are rule-based. This is supposed to lead to fairness, consistency, predictability, accountability, and all kinds of other non-creative goodness. For techies out there, you can think of them as code-based machines made up of humans. Just as with a computer (unless you are trying to develop some sort of AI), you generally wouldn’t like it executing your code in a random, unpredictable manner.

    When your code can’t handle all of the cases that are thrown its way, you have to fix your code. But you don’t blame the transistors for being consistent.

    If bureaucrats have been given a set of rules and no discretion to break them, then logically they are not lording any power over anybody, for any motive. And a lot of them have lots of ideas about how they’d make the system run better, if someone higher up would only listen to them….

  42. OK. Ken put in a sig. It was a slip, not a deliberate provocation of any kind. Takuan, you made your point. Now stop it, both of you.

  43. Dear Talia: Can you imagine what it would be like like if sig lines were permitted? How long/big then? Every single post? Competitions for the most elaborate? Nope, they may be an art-form to some but if you are trying to have discussions, share things etc. all they do is slow things down and clog up space. In any event, the decision was made at a higher level and my own interest lies solely in seeing to it that all Moderation rules don’t become disregarded by accepted precedent. Just housekeeping, no glory or fun but as necessary as keeping the floor swept.

  44. Geez Takuan, it’s just a simple sig – it’s not even serrated! Can I talk to your supervisor? Will you at least admit it’s a dumb rule?

  45. t’aint a “dumb” rule, that’s why I suggested a Sig Line Day so all could see how much more crap we’d all be wading through to get to the meat. Yiou can’t make that argument anymore than saying road speed limits shouldn’t apply to you because you haven’t had an accident yet.

  46. For the record, I’m completely down with the sig rule. I still haven’t decided if I was playing along with your joke or pointing out the irony of being strict with rules in this thread about “TSA thugs”.

  47. The TSA reminds me of the cops in Idiocracy:

    Joe: (Moving to the ‘Out’ line of the prison) I was supposed to be in the release line.

    Guard: (Squinting dumbly)
    You forgot your paperwork, dumbass.
    (Lets Joe leave)

  48. While I’m certain it has been said before, while we are so worried about a plane being hijacked and the passengers being held hostage, not everyone has noticed that the country has been hijacked and the citizens are all being held hostage.

    Then again, who uses such an outdated word like ‘citizens’ unless they are complaining about illegal immigration? Not many will change their perspective and ask if there are still rights and privileges left that make it worth being a citizen.

    Maybe I’m just getting cynical in my old age…

  49. Folks- there is a larger game afoot. It’s called Yet Another Stolen Election. One of the prime tools used in distracting the public is Drama. Anything that absorbs our attention lets the theft of another election go unopposed.

    The lack of opposition perhaps was due to no opponents participating in debate. As the would-be opponents time was absorbed by haggling about rules against .sig lines being valid or not.

  50. Without first RTFA (or even most of the comments), am I correct in assuming that the person in question being harassed by TSA is in fact the pilot? If so, this is another one of those, “You know, as the pilot, I could just crash the plane if I wanted to, no cutlery required.” Kafkaesque scenarios of TSA rationale.

  51. lots of ways to steal an election. A plane crash maybe. Like a certain inconvenient senator with a swing vote.

  52. “Amber of absurtidy” FTW. I can picture the Jurassic Park guy’s amber staff with a googley eye hanging off the petrified crystal.

  53. I wonder if the pilot reminded the TSA agent that there’s a fire axe in the cockpit a couple of feet behind the pilot. You can do a lot more damage with that than you can with a table knife.

  54. Unless I misread it, the guy writing the article is not actually the pilot of the flight, but is otherwise a pilot, and is still wearing his uniform from earlier flights.

  55. @41:

    I have gone through airport security several times over the past year with an empty water bottle. I’ve even gone so far as to go into the washroom immediately before the security checkpoint, dump the remaining water out of my bottle, go through security, and fill it up from the fountain on the other side.

    Given how hard it is to stay hydrated on long flights (that air is _dry_, and the cups you can get for drinks on board are tiny), I highly recommend this tactic for any airline traveller. The rules prevent you from taking liquids through security. They don’t prevent you from taking containers that it is possible to store liquids in.

  56. Everything the TSA does for us comes down to SECURITY THEATER. I never fly anywhere. One’s movements are still anonymous when driving!

  57. when will the act of actively evading passive information collection become illegal? Refusing to carry a cell phone, removing car Event Recorders, refusing RFID tags, wearing a CCTV defeating disguise, lying or omitting to the data miners, using cash for everything?

  58. Here’s why we don’t want signature lines. Because they morph into ‘big sigs’. At least we don’t have those dodgy little avatar pictures. There’s nothing worse than reading a comment thread and seeing hundreds of tiny photos of somebody’s favorite American Gladiator.

    ♥ ♥ ♥

    Antinous of Bythinion
    Imperial Eromenos
    Osiris Avatar

    “Just keepin’ it real and tryin’ to take it to the next level.”

    ♥ ♥ ♥

  59. the tsa should really just cut off our fingers before allowing us to board a plane. after all. we could poke someone in the eye. they should cut off our feet, too for that matter, ’cause after we poke someone in the eye, we’ll probably want to kick them a bunch of times to prevent them from poking us in the eye back.

    after 9/11, upon hearing that cutlery would be henceforth excluded from airline meals, mary schiavo, jd and former inspector general of the united states department of transportation, said something on the order of, “What!? Who’s in *charge* there?”

    those in charge of the tsa are retarded.

  60. The part of this story that caught my eye is not the stupid TSA aspect. Its so common, it’s no longer interesting. I’d be ashamed to tell anyone I work at the TSA. When you can only hire desperate people who couldn’t get work at any other place, surely the effectiveness of the security will be affected.

    Anyway, didn’t anyone notice that the pilot has just landed his plane, dashed into his office to stash his bag, and immediately takes a commuter flight somewhere else (perhaps for his weekend break)? I imagine he expects to be flying back there again to pick up his bag when he goes back to work.

    Regular people like us commute a few km to work everyday. Pilots apparently commute a few hundred km, on planes (perhaps on their weekends). Do this happen often? What about the cabin crew? Doesn’t the airlines schedule their flights to eliminate unnecessary commutes?

  61. We laugh at them because they are absurd, but c’mon guys, the TSA are Nazis. I mean that. Wanna off 6 million people you don’t like for some reason? Just get a bunch of stupid assholes and hand them a little power and tell them they’re doing something great. Then turn them loose on a bunch of people who individually don’t want any trouble so they just roll their eyes when asked to do things that make no sense. Then tell the stupid assholes to round up the people you don’t like.

    I hassle the TSA every time I fly. I comply, but I make sure I waste as much of their time and make their jobs as unpleasant as possible. I feel bad for the people in line after me, because I am slowing up the line, but I really think that these people are the enemy. Sure, they aren’t smart enough to be responsible for this bullshit, but that is actually worse–you can’t talk to them because they have the combined IQ of a box of oatmeal. And not the Wilford Brimley kind, either.

    I wish one day we’d all just stop following the rules and laugh in their faces like they’re joking.

    Either that or start a shooting war. But those aren’t nearly as fun as watching idiots with fictitious authority have tantrums. Besides, the point of any war is to break the enemy’s spirit, and being mocked by a crowd of strangers has to hurt pretty bad.

  62. I just turned 16 and on a recent flight it turns out that they require photo ID at 16, even though every other thing on the planet does not require it until 18… since I did not have photo ID, I was “selected for additional screening.” That makes no sense… because they can’t verify the ticket belongs to me, I must be patted down and metal detector’d?

  63. nothing to hide
    Ex-Prosecutor says he was put on terror watch list

    Jul 14, 4:10 PM (ET)


    WASHINGTON (AP) – The Justice Department’s former top criminal prosecutor says the government’s terror watch list likely has caused thousands of innocent Americans to be questioned, searched or otherwise hassled. Former Assistant Attorney General Jim Robinson would know: he’s one of them.

    Robinson joined another mistaken-identity American and the American Civil Liberties Union on Monday to urge eliminating the list that’s supposed to identify suspected terrorists.

  64. just follow the posted rules Ken – like myself and everyone else.

    The irony of a post like this in a thread about this subject is delicious.

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