WASHINGTON – Just in time for the summer travel season, House lawmakers gave an earful Thursday to the chief of the Transportation Security Administration with complaints about post-9/11 restrictions on carry-on items aboard planes.
One lawmaker wondered about letting passengers carry weapons on board to fight terrorists, but the TSA official at a contentious hearing said that was a non-starter.
"The American people are just really disgusted and outraged with a department that they see as bloated and inefficient," said Rep. Mike D. Rogers, R-Ala., chairman of the Homeland Security transportation security subcommittee. "The department's got a bad image problem."
Rogers and others complained to TSA chief John Pistole that the agency still prohibits passengers from carrying water bottles, razors or pocket knives — some of the restrictions imposed after the terrorist airliners hijackings of Sept 11., 2001. Lawmakers and passengers have balked at the idea that a pair of nail clippers or beard scissors should still be banned, long after passengers have concluded they should fight terrorists who might try to hijack a flight.
"The prohibited items list is the place for you to start making immediate changes," Rogers said.
Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., even wondered whether the TSA would soon let people carry things "to protect themselves."
Pistole said there are "very strong concerns about allowing knives on planes."
Pistole acknowledged that passengers seem frustrated. The TSA recently made changes to let the elderly — anyone over 75 years old — and the young — 12 and under — keep their shoes on during security checks. For the most frequent travelers who are willing to tell the government about themselves and their travel habits, there's a new trusted traveler program that allows approved travelers to keep their shoes on and zip through security with fewer hassles.
Pistole said the changes are already making a difference and more people are added to the pre-screening program almost daily.
Rep. Bob Turner, R-N.Y., said he is in airports about a dozen times a month and is confounded by the lack of consistency in security.
"It's different everywhere," Turner said.
Pistole said TSA can be criticized for moving too quickly or too slowly.
"If we put something in place too quickly, as we've been so criticized in the past ... and if it implicates security in a negative way, that's the worst outcome," Pistole said. "If a terrorist can take advantage of a vulnerability because of something we rushed to get out, then that doesn't serve any of us well. The bottom line is we have to provide the best possible security. The question is, how can we do that in the most professional way, the most efficient way?"