WASHINGTON – To hear it from Adm. James M. Loy, the "Stupid Rule List'' now in place at the federal Transportation Security Administration actually sounds pretty smart.
Gone is the ban against carrying coffee cups through airport security checkpoints. Eliminated are the two rote questions — "Have your bags been in your possession at all times?'' and "Has anyone unknown to you asked you to carry anything on board this plane?'' — asked at check-in counters. It's now OK to carry nail clippers or eyelash curlers aboard an airplane in a carry-on bag.
Before Loy took over as TSA chief two months ago, none of those commonsense ideas were allowed at the nation's 429 airports. Since then, Loy, the retired U.S. Coast Guard commandant, has espoused the idea that airports can be secure without being inconvenient.
He has compiled a "Stupid Rule List'' of TSA mandates with an eye toward overturning them.
It's an example of the sort of funny-but-smart policies that Loy made his trademark during a 38-year career with the Coast Guard — and have endeared him to Capitol Hill and transportation industry officials alike.
"To whatever degree that ideas can be translated into a lighter touch, to make a point vividly but with humor at the same time — I think people identify with that kind of thing pretty strongly,'' Loy, a native of Altoona, Pa., said during a recent interview.
The TSA, still in its infancy as the federal agency created to ensure security at airports and other transportation sites after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, is still considering a number of items on its "Stupid Rule List.'' They include:
—The "30-minute'' rule that prohibits flyers in or out of Reagan National Airport from standing on airplanes within 30 minutes of Washington.
—Restricting parking within 300 feet of an airport.
—Randomly searching passengers at the boarding gate.
Loy's management style could not be more different, observers say, from that of his predecessor, James Magaw, who resigned in July amid sharp criticism. Magaw, a former Secret Service agent and head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, took a strict law-enforcement approach and was perceived as too gruff when dealing with Congress and the traveling public.
Magaw "did not interact with Congress,'' said Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation Committee and a sharp critic of TSA before Loy took over. "He didn't understand that this is a big constituency that he has to keep informed, and be open and candid with, and he didn't do that.
"The admiral, however, is much more supportive,'' Oberstar said. "I've heard airport managers say, 'He came back and he knew my first name.'''
Loy also has what colleagues describe as an "impish'' sense of humor. He was infamous in the Coast Guard for his impromptu McDonald's runs — although his TSA aides now say they're to Dairy Queen — before trips.
Sharing a podium several years ago with then-Defense Secretary William Cohen, Loy reminded his boss that the two had squared off during a 1962 college basketball tournament — and that he had won.
"He brought up the fact that they trounced us,'' said Cohen, who, as Bowdoin College's star player, sat out the game against the Coast Guard because of a broken jaw.
Beneath Loy's joviality is "a man who is very, very smart,'' Cohen said. "He's self-deprecating. Don't be fooled by it. He analyzes issues with a great critical eye; loves to engage in self-deprecation and touch issues on the light side. But he's a profound thinker.''
Industry officials said they were simply grateful to be invited to the decision-making process as TSA struggles to create an air travel system that is as concerned with customer service as it is with security.
"Our input was not always welcomed in the early days of the TSA,'' said Michael Wascom, spokesman for the Washington-based Air Transport Association, which represents 22 domestic and five foreign passenger and cargo airlines. Loy "has been much more receptive to at least understanding our ideas or input,'' Wascom said. "His approach is noticeably different from Magaw, in that his approach to policy-making is based in practicality and reality.
"We're happy. We're much happier today than we were a few months ago.''