The Transportation Security Administration on Friday announced changes in screening procedures at the nation's commercial airports, allowing passengers to take small scissors on planes but increasing random passenger checks.
"I am convinced, that the time now spent searching bags for small scissors and tools can be better utilized to focus on the far more dangerous threat of explosives," said TSA Director Kip Hawley.
The changes will go into effect on December 22, during the holiday travel season.
Before the official announcement, TSA officials briefed managers of the nation's airports on the changes Thursday in a conference call.
Under the new procedures, which are designed to give screeners more time to focus on detecting explosives, scissors less than 4 inches long and tools less than 7 inches long will be allowed on aircraft.
"Tools with cutting edges, bludgeons, crowbars, hammers, saws and drills will continue to be prohibited along with any tool that is more than seven inches long," Hawley said.
About 18,000 airport screeners have received more training in explosive detection, according to the TSA.
In addition, pat-down procedures at checkpoints will be refined. Currently, screeners pat down passengers' backs and abdomens. Under the new system, screeners also will pat down arms and legs below the mid-thigh, although they will be given discretion to forgo those searches in cases where bare skin or tight clothing make it obvious nothing is being concealed.
The level of random screening will be increased, with procedures varying from airport to airport to keep any would-be terrorists off guard.
Passengers won't be selected for random searches based on their race, age, religion or nationality, according to the TSA. However, screeners will be given some discretion to forgo searches based on age and gender, so that passengers aren't being patted down by screeners of the opposite sex.
TSA officials told the managers they are assessing data from three pilot studies on the impact the new procedures might have on airport operations, but they do not anticipate any increase in waiting times.
Some members of Congress are expressing reservations about the changes.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas, said allowing sharp-pointed scissors and similar objects on planes "could undermine the progress we have made in securing our skies since the 9/11 attacks."
"The change in policy would do little to alleviate screening delays, since screeners would need to stop the conveyor belt to check whether the scissors in question fell within the new limits," she said in a letter to Hawley, urging him to drop the idea.
Noting that the September 11 hijackers used box cutters to commandeer aircraft, Rep. Edward Markey, D-Massachusetts, said the TSA "should not make it easier for future Mohamed Attas to arm themselves with razor-sharp objects and bring down a passenger plane."