WASHINGTON (AFP) - A decision to scrap a post-9/11 ban on pocket knives being carried by passengers on US aircraft has triggered an angry backlash from pilots, flight attendants and airline chiefs.
Starting from April 25, travelers will be able to carry small knives with folding blades on US planes following a shift in security strategy by the federal Transportation Security Administration.
TSA chief John Pistole said the new guidelines would bring US security regulations into line with international standards and were designed to help airport staff find more dangerous items such as explosives.
"This is part of an overall risk-based security approach, which allows Transportation Security Officers to better focus their efforts on finding higher threat items such as explosives," Mr Pistole said this week.
The shift comes against the backdrop of the US sequester crisis that has seen dramatic budget cuts force federal agencies to look at different ways of reducing costs.
The TSA has already frozen its hiring policy and eliminated overtime with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warning the sequester cuts could lead to a doubling of queues and wait times.
While box cutters of the kind used by hijackers in the September 11, 2001 attacks remain banned, the TSA's decision to relax the rules on pocket knives has appalled airline officials and staff.
"These items have been banned for more than 11 years and will add little value to the customer security process flow in relation to the additional risk for our cabin staff and customers," Delta Air Lines chief executive Richard Anderson wrote in a letter to the TSA.
"If the purpose is to increase security checkpoint flow, there are much more effective steps we can take together to streamline the security checkpoints with risk-based screening mechanisms."
The Flight Attendants Union Coalition, which represents some 90,000 workers, said its members were "outraged."
"The continued ban on dangerous objects is an integral layer in aviation security and must remain in place," the group said.
A nationwide petition against the TSA changes lodged on the White House website had garnered 15,000 signatures by Saturday.
The Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations has also spoken out against the move.
"We believe the threat is still real and the removal of any layer of security will put crewmembers and the flying public unnecessarily in harm's way," CAPA president Mike Karn warned.
Mr Andrew Thomas, an aviation security expert at the University of Akron, said their was logic behind the TSA's change in strategy.
"Simply put, if they are not looking for so many items, they will not need as many people working at the checkpoints," he said.
"TSA is announcing very subtly here that they are slowly changing their strategic focus from keeping bad things off of to planes to keeping bad people away. For this, they should be applauded."
But terrorism expert JM Berger was sharply critical of the rule change.
"TSA continues to make people take off their shoes before entering the gate at an airport even though there has never been a single fatality from a shoe bomb on an airplane," Berger said.
"In contrast, terrorists armed only with small blades killed almost 3,000 people in a single day in 2001."
The furor has also proved irresistible to satirical media outlet The Onion, which commented in a spoof report that the TSA "will henceforth allow small terrorists on commercial aircraft."