As the flight ascended, the knife descended.

The other morning, as my flight ascended into the sky over a major Asian airport, I felt something hard fall to the floor beside my feet. Curious, I leaned forward and saw, on the floor, something that I initially mistook as a piece of the seat in front of mine. I picked it up, turned it in my hand and realized that – rather than holding a loose part – I was actually in possession of a quite serious 3.5 inch (89 mm) knife. Below, a photo of the sheathed weapon.

Slightly stunned, I turned to the fellow beside me – and he suggested that I give the blade to a flight attendant. I must admit, my initial thought was: “Thanks cowboy, but I have no interest in being the guy who has to answer for finding a titanium-framed knife stowed in a magazine pocket (or beneath a seat) on an international flight operated by a US airline. You do it.” But that was just my first thought, the one that happened before the good citizen sprung into action and pressed the flight attendant call button. At the time, we were still ascending, so a flight attendants didn’t exactly come running – providing me plenty of time to snap a photo of the knife (later, ID’d the brand and model, which you’ll find here), and speculate on just why it had been stowed away on my plane (which, as it turns out, regularly transits between North America and Asia). Conclusion: no idea.

Anyway, the flight attendant eventually arrived and, after I explained what had happened, she swiped the knife out of my hand with a curt “Thank you!” and walked away. Then, over the next few minutes, several flight attendants and a gentleman whom I assume was an air marshal all made their way up the aisle, had a look at me, and returned to the place from which they came. I assume they were trying to judge whether or not I was a threat. So, in hope of enhancing my non-threatening image, I asked for a vegetarian meal (in case they had an extra one available), and a glass of white wine (seriously).

It must have worked: nobody ever asked me anything. Nothing more happened. I guess they know what they’re doing, and I’m thankful, I guess.

So. I really have nothing more to add to this little tale beyond this question: how confident should we all feel about an airline security system that required a quarter tube of toothpaste to be seized out of my carry-on, and yet somehow managed to allow somebody to smuggle a blade onto the same plane? For some possible answers, see Bruce Schneier on “security theater” and Jeffrey Goldberg’s classic debunking of the post-9/11 airline security measures that have been implemented in the US, and airports worldwide (including the one that I flew through on this fateful day).

19 thoughts on “As the flight ascended, the knife descended.

  1. Well, it’s costly security theater that doesn’t actually have a beneficial impact. I brought a camping gas lighter and pair of serious scissors through a hand-search of our luggage while a shampoo flash was confiscated (major packing snafu, all of this should have been in checked baggage).

    One interesting thing to consider is that the knife might be a sign of ops to determine the actual efficacy of airport security operations. Which failed in this case. Troubling.

  2. What I find most troubling about this incident isn’t that contraband can be smuggled through security, but that it can be stashed on planes. Any chance that your plane was scoured for knives after it landed? Or does TSA leave that to the cleaning crews? I don’t think that I want to know the answer.

  3. Well, if the Sky Marshal had determined you were a threat and somehow detained you, this could have led to a larger story, possibly titled The Accidental Terrorist.

    Or is that already taken?

  4. Weapon? That’s no weapon, it’s a tool. Unless you subscribe to the zero-tolerance policy of “if it can be used as a weapon, then it’s a weapon” that gets students expelled for bent spoons.

  5. Whether or not the knife that I found qualifies as weapon in your eyes misses the point entirely. What matters is the fact that the knife qualifies as a weapon under the stringent zero-tolerance policy that the US and its airlines adopted after terrorists smuggled box cutters (with much smaller blades) aboard jets on 9-11, and that the stringent measures adopted after 9-11 failed to detect it.

  6. Weapon? That’s no weapon, it’s a tool.

    Indeed. But some times the job is opening a box, and some times it’s opening a carotid artery. Notice how the tool is the same.

  7. Good thing you didn’t ask for the Halal meal and ask which direction Mecca was in… but seriously if that knife could talk, it’d probably tell an interesting story.

  8. Going through security in Shanghai, they confiscated a tiny pair of scissors with blades so short they qualify for carryon under TSA rules. But I guess real knives are OK.

  9. As I went thru security at the Expo the other day, the guard inspecting my bag kept insisting in English “pencil, pencil.” So I pulled out the closest thing I had in my bag, a pen. But that didn’t satisfy him & after some discussion with another guard, it turned out it was my lipstick he wanted. They made me put it on there & then in front of everybody. Talk about a lethal weapon.

  10. Post-9/11, it would be very difficult to hijack a plane using a knife. That only worked in the days when the passengers and crew assumed that the hijacker wasn’t interested in crashing the plane, and they had more to lose by resisting. Today, a hijacker with a knife couldn’t get through the cockpit door, and would have the crap beaten out of him by a hundred passengers. I’d be worried if you’d found bomb components in the seat pocket.

  11. If it’s a plane that travels regularly from asia to the US and back, I’d guess that someone got it through less stringent security in Asia and then upon finding it in their pocket figured they better ditch it before the TSA put their gloves on.

  12. Honestly, carrying the knife and using it is no big deal. There’s lots of things that it’s handy for, such as those damned plastic packaging that’s impossible to open.
    That being said, them airport security is pretty dumb. I was on a flight from HKG to YVR that continues to JFK, and we weren’t allowed to carry liquor from the duty-free, yet I’ve forgotten to put my Swiss army knife into the checked luggage, chucked it into carry on, and I got through the HKG security, and the extra set that was meant to deal with the US compliance.
    They’re security theatre, and your security in-flight depends more on luck and the presence of courageous good citizens than the rent-a-cops at the airport.
    Don’t get me started on the TSA luggage locks either.

  13. It is possible that the knife could have been smuggled on board buy a cleaner when the aircraft was being turned around. While the cleaners are usually scanned prior to entering the aircraft it would be easier than for a passenger.

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