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CURTAIN FALLS ON THIS ACT

TSA won't confiscate lighters anymore, calling it "security theater."

Maybe you missed the big revelation last week by the folks charged with keeping our skies safe.

Cigarette lighters aren't a threat to aviation security after all and airport screeners won't stop travelers from bringing them on airplanes, starting Aug. 4.

This comes after more than two years of banning lighters, by far the top prohibited item surrendered at airports. Security officers nationwide collect about 22,000 every day - 400 to 500 at Tampa International Airport alone.

Congress put the lighter ban into law after passenger Richard Reid tried to light explosives in his shoe on a flight from Paris to Miami in 2001.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) said last week the lighter ban didn't make flying safer. Small batteries could ignite a bomb just as easily.

"Taking lighters away is security theater,'' said Kip Hawley, assistant secretary of the TSA, in a New York Times interview.

Oddly, Hawley borrowed the phrase "security theater'' (the alternative is "security Kabuki'') from critics of the agency's screening procedures and priorities.

Why stop with this part of the security charade, they asked on chat boards of sites like the popular FlyerTalk.com.

"The Shoe Carnival is security theater,'' wrote Spiff, a board moderator from Louisville, Ky. "The Liquid Nonsense is security theater. ID'ing passengers is security theater. (Boarding pass) checking is security theater.''

Lots of travelers wonder whether they're any safer for having their shoes X-rayed for explosives. Or by being limited to carrying moisturizers and toothpaste in containers of 3.4 ounces or less.

After terrorists tried to run a car bomb into an airport in Scotland this month, police at large U.S. airports, Tampa International included, pulled over vehicles at random for inspections.

Uniformed police, TSA officers and other federal agents showed up in force patrolling airport terminals. The car searches stopped and patrols melted away after the July 4 holiday week - and news on the Scotland bombers - ended.

Security theater? Hmmmm.

Meanwhile, the feds aren't plugging some very large holes in security.

Cargo carried in airliners is not routinely scanned for explosives. And airport employees don't get screened each time they go into secure areas (they are subject to random checks).

TSA officials say they're responding appropriately based on current threats. British officials last summer broke up a plot to blow up airliners flying to the United States with liquid explosives.

Reid, of course, boarded a trans-Atlantic flight with a shoe bomb. He failed to light it with matches before flight attendants and passengers stopped him. Lawmakers argued he might have pulled it off with a lighter, prompting the ban on Bics and Zippos.

Congress gave the TSA permission to lift the ban this year. The agency has to wait until Aug. 4 because it must give Congress 15 days notice. Torch lighters, with a hotter and more intense flame, will still be banned.

TSA also will lift another questionable restriction: banning women not traveling with infants from bringing breast milk on planes.

In a Q&A on its Web site, the agency asks, "Why is breast milk not a threat?'' The answer: Breast milk is a medical necessity and is being classified as such.

How about: It's not a weapon. Duh.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Why lift the ban on lighters?

The Transportation Security Administration said last week the ban doesn't make flying safer. A TSA official called it "security theater."

Why the ban in the first place?

In 2001, Richard Reid tried to light his shoe while he was in flight. Lawmakers argued he might have been successful with a lighter.

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