Introducing Policy Change: The Case of Knives on Planes

Last month, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) unveiled a plan to permit some items that had been previously banned back onto commercial airplanes. Their new list of permitted items included hockey sticks, ski poles, and two golf clubs. But most surprising was the inclusion of knives with blades under 2.36 inches long and a half-inch wide. Unlike sporting equipment, knives are much more directly associated with terrorism and the September 11 attacks in particular.

The plan led to a direct and powerful counter response. The flight attendants union is incensed, concerned about the potential danger for their members. The TSA’s own union is concerned that the new policy will require screeners to make difficult judgments about what can be allowed through security. Even the air marshals weighed in against the idea.

Then there was the backlash from Congress. House Homeland Security Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas) said he was “a little bit blindsided” by TSA Director John Pistole’s announcement on the issue. Representative Ed Markey (D-Mass.) called the policy “nonsensical” and “contradictory” and “dangerous”. Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) filed an amendment to the budget resolution to overturn the new policy. Mr. Pistole even had to defend his job when rumors surfaced he might lose it as a result of the controversy.

Admittedly, the TSA is an unusual transportation agency. Due to the nature of the job, TSA is inherently secretive. If you tell the world every reason behind every security decision, it may offer clues or create opportunities to those who wish to breach the system. But even accounting for this, TSA’s actions on this issue represent a case study in how not to roll out a new transportation policy. The proposed change brings the U.S. in line with other peer nations, and allows the TSA workers to focus on finding explosives instead of small knives that pose no threat. But this message got lost because of the way TSA rolled out the policy. What could have been an easily accepted change, potentially seen as an improvement for travelers and evidence of a more competent TSA, instead devolved into a public relations problem and served to potentially set back important policy improvements.

Eno has recently looked at several case studies of transportation agencies that communicated effectively with the public in rolling out new policies and investment decisions. Each case below demonstrates the importance of doing what the TSA did not: meeting with stakeholders, and engaging the public early and often.

Chicago and Atlanta Airports

Chicago had been trying to expand O’Hare airport for decades. One of the prime areas of opposition to expansion was neighboring DuPage County, Ill. DuPage is not part of the City of Chicago and lacks easy airport access, but still feels many of the negative externalities generated by the airport. As Eno discovered when we held a forum and subsequently wrote a paper on the now successful O’Hare Modernization Program in 2011, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley worked to create relationships of common interest with DuPage County over time in order to eventually overcome this opposition. He did not roll out an expansion plan and then try to steamroll the county into acceptance. Instead he was able to build trust over time and eventually convince County leaders that the economic future of DuPage was actually linked to Chicago and the airport. They also promised to include better access to O’Hare as part of the expansion plan.

A similar story about the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) was relayed to Eno at this same forum. Ben DeCosta, former Director of ATL, told of how he overcame community opposition to expansion. When first appointed airport director, Mr. DeCosta went out to the community and held question and answer sessions. He came with no agenda and vowed to answer questions until everyone was done asking them. The result was that he rebuilt trust in the community and when expansion plans were unveiled, people felt he had taken their concerns into account. 

Kansas Department of Transportation

The Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) provides another good case study in how to listen to constituents before proceeding. As described in the 2012 William P. Eno paper, KDOT now has in place one of the nation’s leading programs in prioritizing projects on the basis of economic analysis. Prioritizing projects on this basis may seem simple and rational, but it requires that the public believe in the system. If the public suspects the prioritization scheme is more political than analytical, they will reject it.

KDOT began by administering more than 900 stakeholder satisfaction surveys across the state, which indicated a general dissatisfaction among the public for the current project prioritization process. Officials from KDOT then proceed to design a project selection program in an open and transparent manner. They posted information about estimated project impacts on their website, held numerous public meetings, and provided details to elected officials and stakeholders. They even created an online community to facilitate discussion. The result was a process that the public accepted, and one that produced far better public policy outcomes. In this case, including the public was the primary reason for success.

Utah Transit Authority

Salt Lake City in the early 1990s was lacking adequate public transportation. The metropolitan area was almost entirely dependent on the automobile, as anyone who could afford to do so immediately found a car in order to avoid the slow bus system. The region was facing substantial growth, not to mention an upcoming Olympic games, and quickly realized that if it failed to upgrade its infrastructure it would fail to accommodate that growth or the games effectively.

In an attempt to avoid this fate, the business community and the region’s leaders decided to move forward with an ambitious regional plan. But as Eno learned when we held a forum there last year to highlight the successes of the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) expansion, they did not simply roll out a plan and push for acceptance. Instead, they surveyed the public about the outcomes they desired and held public meetings in order to formulate a plan. Through this process they determined that the desired outcomes could be met most cost-effectively in part through a new light-rail system and commuter rail lines. Notably, UTA was not the leader of this effort – it was a coalition of business and civic leaders that developed the plan. UTA effectively implemented the plan once it was agreed to. Had UTA simply rolled out the plan, they undoubtedly would have faced substantial opposition from across the region. Eno will highlight the lessons learned from these efforts in a forthcoming paper.


It is tempting for experts in a policy area to think that because they are more knowledgeable about an issue that the public will accept their proposed policies. In reality this is rarely the case. Public officials, especially in transportation because it affects everyone, must carefully develop big policy changes or investment plans in concert with the public, stakeholders, and elected officials. One of the most beautiful and frustrating things about democracy is that it is difficult to maintain concentrated power over decision-making. Successful policy improvements almost never come from one person, agency, or legislative body making a decision. They almost always come from a greater consensus achieved through a process of public outreach and analysis.

The TSA is a unique agency, and it may be challenging for them to follow this golden rule of public policy because of their need for secrecy. But at a very minimum, any proposed change in security procedures should be vetted with public officials who have security clearance. It is not clear what TSA would have had to lose by briefing key members of Congress on the change before announcing it. Given some of the potential safety and time benefits for travelers from the new policy, they might have even been been able to convince Congress to take ownership over the initiative. The stakeholders who will be affected by a policy change, such as the unions in this case, should be also briefed and consulted on their opinions. Though they may still choose to oppose it, at least give them the opportunity to react before the policy is announced.

The best possible way to introduce new policies is, to the extent possible, informing and educating the public on the decision-making process and outcome. This may not always be possible for an agency like the TSA, but even they can do better. The ideal result of a policy initiative should not be viewed as successful implementation of a preconceived idea. The ideal result should be better policy.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Eno Center for Transportation.

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