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Newsday | News 12 Investigation

PA yanks knives from JFK eateries inside security checkpoint

Steak knives with 5-inch blades of serrated steel were being handed out to passengers dining at two swanky steak houses located beyond security checkpoints at Kennedy Airport with no apparent effort to keep those potential weapons off airplanes.

But three hours after Newsday and News 12 Long Island aired a report yesterday afternoon showing how easy it was to remove those knives from the airport restaurants, the Port Authority took action. The agency banned the metal steak knives from restaurants inside the secure areas.

“We’re above and beyond what the TSA requires,” Port Authority spokesman Chris Valens said.

In repeated tests at Kennedy, reporters showed how easy it was to keep the knives at the end of meals. After paying the bill, and asking a server or busboy to clear away the plate, it was simple to slip the wood-handled knife into a briefcase. Even after 10 minutes passed, no one from the kitchen came looking for the missing knife.

Despite chatting about the knife — “Real knives, real food,” said a waitress at The Palm Bar & Grille in international Terminal 4 — servers never noticed that it wasn’t on the table at the end of the meal.

On one visit, we took the knife — in a napkin and hidden in a briefcase — out of the restaurant, and no questions were asked. No more security checks stood between the knife and 300 flights to airports across the nation and the world.

The head of the flight attendants union, Sara Nelson, said the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, demonstrated the damage that even small knives such as a box cutter can do.

“I’m pretty angry, actually, that someone would think that this is OK and that they’re going to get one by on all of us,” said Nelson, a United Airlines flight attendant and international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents about 60,000 flight attendants at 19 airlines. “This was found at JFK. New York, where 3,000 people died, where my friends lost their lives an hour after they took off from Boston.”

The Transportation Security Administration wouldn’t say whether it approved these knives, or what procedure was in place to make sure they stayed in the restaurants.

In fact, there was no procedure, said a senior executive at the largest airport food service company, which operates all the restaurants and stores at Kennedy’s Terminal 4, including The Palm.

“We don’t have a process that audits the dining room knives of any of the restaurants,” said Pat Murray, executive vice president of business development for SSP America. Although the TSA has detailed rules for the knives back in the kitchen, chained to tables and counted several times a day, Murray said, no rules dealt with controlling the knives used by customers.

“There is not a specific procedure around the knife — the dining room knife,” Murray said. “We all could probably improve on some of our processes.”

In tests over the month leading up to the holiday travel season, when some 27 million passengers are expected to fly from U.S. airports, reporters visited both of the steak restaurants three times on different shifts with different servers.

On the way into the airport, refundable one-way tickets provided access to get through security. A screener from the TSA was vigilant, immediately spotting a small pocket knife we tried on one occasion to carry into the airport in a briefcase as a test. He confiscated it with a warning, “No knives can fly.”

Once past the security checkpoint, however, knives were free for the taking at the steak houses.

Ordering a steak prompted a waiter in a tan jacket to bring out a knife with a 5-inch wood handle and a 5-inch blade. We ordered the $46 New York strip at The Palm. And in the American Airlines Terminal 8, at Bobby Van’s Steakhouse, we selected the $55 Cajun bone-in rib eye with asparagus. Both knives had a rounded tip, but the serrated, high-carbon steel was sharp enough to cut even a well-done steak.

The Palm is dimly lit, the walls decorated with the likenesses of Batman, Popeye and other cartoon characters and celebrities, like the original Palm on Second Avenue in Manhattan. The Kennedy Airport version of The Palm was located outside security when it opened in 2009. In 2013, SSP America outfitted a new Palm, conveniently situated beyond security checkpoints.

On one visit to The Palm, we left the restaurant with the knife in a briefcase, walking toward the gate for a Virgin America flight to San Francisco. Instead of getting on the plane, we took the knife from the airport to be photographed.

See it happen

On a recent visit to The Palm Bar & Grille in Terminal 4, a reporter easily slips a steak knife into his bag and turns in his plate without restaurant staff inquiring about the knife’s absence. During the past month, the same pattern happened three times at The Palm and three times at Bobby Van’s Steakhouse in Terminal 8.

Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

In the five other tests, not wanting to risk a security scare, we paid the bill, returned to our plate, and sat while the knife was secreted in the briefcase for 10 minutes each time. After no one inquired, we returned the knife to the table, still hidden in a napkin so the server couldn’t have known whether we still had it, and left the restaurant unchallenged.

The general manager at Bobby Van’s said the staff counted the knives every day and that no customer could get away with failing to return a knife at the end of a meal. When told that this was exactly what happened three times in his restaurant, general manager David Silverman said, “Thanks for calling,” and hung up the phone.

Click the icon to expand.

Unaware of our tests, TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said weeks ago that knives were controlled at U.S. airports. In a written statement, she said: “In the case of restaurant knives, those knives are inventoried. Let’s say that you order a steak at the restaurant. The table is not set with a knife until the steak is delivered to the table. When the customer finishes the meal, the wait staff picks up the knife with the empty plate and brings it back into the kitchen. If the knife is not there, authorities are notified. If the passenger already left the restaurant, authorities would seek out the customer/traveler in the terminal.”

Informed on Monday that it didn’t work that way at Kennedy, Farbstein would not answer questions, saying in a statement that passengers are protected by “multiple layers of security, both seen and unseen, including intelligence gathering and analysis, cross-checking passenger manifests against watch lists, thorough screening at the checkpoint, random canine team screening at airports” and armed air marshals and armed pilots on some flights.

The TSA has gradually rolled back restrictions on knives. First-class passengers quickly got back their metal butter knives to eat their meals. Then the TSA began allowing metal knives to return to airport restaurants. Those are usually rounded knives, serrated gently or not at all. In Denver, Elway’s restaurant — named for the former Broncos quarterback John Elway — was able to go further, saying it got a TSA exemption to allow a sharper knife for steaks. Still, that knife looks puny compared with the knife given out at the two New York steak houses.

The restaurants at New York airports follow a hodgepodge of practices, even though all the airports are managed by the Port Authority, which reports to Govs. Andrew M. Cuomo and Chris Christie. The Port Authority rules seem clear enough. Forbidden after security checkpoints are “knives of any kind, including steak knives and pocketknives. Rounded blade butter knives and plastic knives are permitted for use by restaurant employees and patrons.” Those rules, still on the Port Authority website this week, are included in the lease agreements for airport vendors.

The Port Authority said in a written statement Monday: “TSA decides which knives are included on the prohibited items list and issues security directives to all airport operators. The Port Authority routinely audits all restaurant and retail vendors operating within the terminals to ensure compliance with TSA’s directives.”

Metal knives weren’t available at LaGuardia Airport’s casual Taste of Prime Tavern, where steaks are featured on the menus displayed on iPads at each table. “Plastic. That’s all there is. Airport security rules,” said the waitress delivering a 12-ounce bone-in prime rib ($39). Plastic also has been the practice at Newark Liberty International Airport, where the Gallagher’s steak house just closed, but new signature restaurants, including a steak house, were announced last week.

At Long Island MacArthur Airport, where there is one steak on the mostly casual menu, a restaurant manager said that only plastic knives are allowed after security.

At Kennedy Airport’s Terminal 5, the JetBlue Airways terminal, customers cut through 5ive Steak’s 20-ounce ribeye ($49) with the sort of tiny, clear plastic knife you’d get at a picnic. “Sorry, Port Authority rules, not ours,” said the waitress. If we had trouble with our steak, she said, she could take it back to the kitchen, where the butcher knives are tethered to tables, and cut it up into small pieces. But the plastic knife did the job.

In Terminal 7’s steak house, Todd English’s Bonfire, a butter knife was the rule. Customers sometimes complain, such as this comment on the TripAdvisor travel website: “Was I supposed to grab the meat with my hands and pull and tear with my teeth??”

The knife from The Palm is called “The Gaucho.” It is sold on Amazon, where a commenter wrote, “These are massive, manly knifes.” The manufacturer said, “Its serrated edge helps the knife cut through steak or other foods with a hard exterior.” The knife at Bobby Van’s was almost identical, but personalized with the restaurant’s name, just like the ones at its Park Avenue location.

In contrast, stores at the airport don’t carry blades. A clerk at the Brookstone store in Kennedy’s Terminal 8, steps from Bobby Van’s, explained that the store doesn’t carry gift sets of barbecue tools or Cuisinart blenders because of the removable sharp blades. And at the Vino Volo wine store in the same concourse, travelers can buy a $19 bottle of ruby-red tempranillo from Spain or splurge on a 2010 Chateau Lafite Rothschild Bordeaux for $1,895 a bottle. But no corkscrew.

The TSA tried last year to relax the rules for passengers carrying pocket knives, announcing it would allow non-locking blades shorter than 2.36 inches. Even those proposed rules changes wouldn’t have allowed through security checkpoints the sort of knives that the New York steak houses are providing, with their longer blades and molded handles.

The TSA argued then that small knives are already allowed in international aviation and that nobody could hijack a plane now with a pocket knife because of the layers of post-9/11 security: hardened cockpit doors and alert passengers who may now be emboldened to attack hijackers. Some other sharp objects, such as knitting needles and ice skates, are allowed in carry-on luggage. Moreover, security specialists said an attacker could fashion a weapon from common items on a plane, such as a broken wine bottle or eyeglasses.

But the flight attendants, saying these were not good reasons to allow passengers to carry weapons, started a “no knives on planes” campaign. After pilots and airlines joined the protest and even the TSA’s screeners signed on, the TSA quickly backed down, continuing to confiscate every knife.

Just last Tuesday, the TSA held a news conference at Kennedy to urge holiday travelers not to carry knives and other weapons, lest they bog down the checkpoints. At the same hour, Newsday and News 12 staffers were at Kennedy, visiting The Palm and Bobby Van’s again to show how easily a passenger could keep the big knives after a meal.

The fancy shops and steak houses at the airports are intended to provide the “grand and gracious arrival” to New York City promised by the Port Authority, which emphasizes photos of plump filet mignon in its advertising for a world-class gateway to a great city. The Port Authority also receives millions of dollars a year from the restaurant management companies, a commission on every dollar spent by travelers on food and drink.

Bobby Van’s in Kennedy’s Terminal 8 generated about $125,000 in commissions for the Port Authority in 2013, or 2.5 percent of its sales. For all restaurants and stores, manager Westfield Concession Management sent about $3 million last year to the Port Authority. The same company owns and operates the dining and shopping area at One World Trade Center.

At Kennedy’s privately owned Terminal 4, SSP America manages the concessions for 17 million passengers a year, with seven full-service restaurants and 19 casual ones. SSP said that it will generate more than $1 billion in sales at Terminal 4 over the life of its lease, which runs to 2026.

The mother of a firefighter killed in New York on 9/11 said the knives at Kennedy Airport were a reminder of the lessons of that day.

“People forget,” said Rosemary Cain of Massapequa, whose son George, 35, was with Ladder Company 7 in Manhattan. “People say, ‘Are you still talking about the World Trade Center?’ ”

She said she has an idea why the knives have been allowed.

“It’s all about money. When it comes to the almighty dollar, it just boggles my mind.”

With Brad Trettien and Brian Jingeleski of News 12 Long Island and Alejandra Villa of Newsday.

Brad Trettien and Brian Jingeleski of News 12 Long Island and Alejandra Villa of Newsday contributed reporting. Produced by Erin Geismar. Design by Anthony Carrozzo