Banning Matches and Lighters on Airplanes

According to the Washington Post:

When Congress voted last year to prohibit passengers from bringing lighters and matches aboard commercial airplanes, it sounded like a reasonable idea for improving airline security.

But as airports and government leaders began discussing how to create flame-free airport terminals, the task became more complicated. Would newsstands and other small airport stores located beyond the security checkpoint have to stop selling lighters? Would airports have to ban smoking and close smoking lounges? How would security screeners detect matches in passengers’ pockets or carry-on bags when they don’t contain metal to set off the magnetometers? And what about arriving international travelers, who might have matches and lighters with them as they walk through the terminal?

It’s the silly security season out there. Given all of the things to spend money on to improve security, how this got to the top of anyone’s list is beyond me.

Posted on March 4, 2005 at 3:00 PM41 Comments


Zwack March 4, 2005 3:28 PM

But does it really improve safety?

Are they going to be screening for flint and steel? tinderbox? battery and resistance wire? Two sticks? a fire starting bow?

I’m sure I could carry enough fine wire in my watch band that I could use the watch battery, or the battery from my walkman to use to start a small fire.

I don’t know who at the Washington Post thought “It sounded like a reasonable idea”… It sounds like an utterly stupid idea to me.

Wouldn’t it just be better to make sure that proper firefighting equipment was available and explosives screening was performed?

When I moved to the US I brought most of my camping equipment, including a Trangia paraffin stove, and a fuel bottle. In light of regulations the fuel bottle was empty (thus full of fumes that probably made it even more likely to explode). But I had accidentally carried it on an international flight while full before (I just forgot to empty it out after a camping trip before boarding the flight home)… Nobody noticed.


Israel Torres March 4, 2005 3:34 PM

The way I see it is that: hey if you aren’t allowed to smoke on a plane (anymore) then heck you really have no reason to be starting fires on one (anymore) 🙂 … when they start banning alcohol* though, well then we can form an uprising.

*Disclaimer: moderate consumption of alcohol has been proven (somewhere) to prevent heart disease.

Israel Torres

Probitas March 4, 2005 3:39 PM

This is hardly restricted to security matters. It seems to be directly attributable to the idea that “we need to make sure that this can never happen again”, whether related to personal injury, product liability or terrorism. Let’s face it, folks; the world is a dangerous place, and sometimes innocents will be injured or die. When that possibility is not part of the foundation of any security assessment, then the whole objective quickly devloves into an impossible pursuit of perfection. Acknowledging the possibility of failure up front permits the focus to remain on devoting resources to the places where they will do the most good, without these little side jaunts aimed at closing off every possible avenue, no matter how remote or unproductive it may be.

Scate March 4, 2005 3:48 PM

Why do you think this is a bad priority?

Matches are a form of pyrotechnics. Lighters contain compressed explosive gas and an igniter. Why on earth should these be allowed on an airplane?

I’d certainly rather they went after matches than that dastardly terrorist favorite: the fingernail clipper.

Erik W. March 4, 2005 3:56 PM

My lighter doesn’t contain compresed anything, Scate.
Just a flint, steel, some cotton batting and some naptha.

Mark Johnson March 4, 2005 4:12 PM

This made it to the top of someone’s security list thanks to the idiot who tried to ignite his shoebomb. It’s the same reason we have to remove our shoes as we pass through security. Just be glad he wasn’t trying to ignite his underwear.

J. B. Levin March 4, 2005 4:29 PM

Do butane lighters contain compressed gas?

This is one of those bad ideas that the politicians got hold of. Since Congress decided it was necessary to ban lighters and matches, just go ahead and ban them from aircraft and forget the rest.

Arta March 4, 2005 4:32 PM


In my opinion, that’s not the point.

I agree that there’s no reasonable use for a lighter on an airplane, but that doesn’t really matter much. The point is that this prohibition causes inconvinience to passengers (smokers) and requires resources to enforce, which could be used more effectively by funding real security measures. In addition, as Z noted, there are a multitude of ways to start a fire, so banning lighters & matches is ineffectual as well as pointless.

In short, the ban provides the illusion of security to those who don’t know any better, while providing no actual security. Thus, it is a pointless inconvinience, and there’s not much in life that infuriates me more than pointless, inconvinient, bureaucratic nonsense.

mph March 4, 2005 5:05 PM

Not to mention that matches, being compact and non-metallic, are likely to avoid detection, especially if the owner is trying to sneak them aboard.

Roman March 4, 2005 6:15 PM

The obvious solution to the match issue is that all matches sold or in the US must contain metal, so that airport security can detect them.

In fact, why not require everyone to board the airplane naked and submit to a full body cavity search. That would certainly be safer, plus think of the entertainment value.

Davi Ottenheimer March 4, 2005 7:01 PM

Funny. Amazing that people are allowed to fly at all. Get rid of the passengers, and you solve all the pesky problems with pocketknifes and lighters…

jet March 4, 2005 7:35 PM

Last week I carried several books of matches through security with nary a hitch. They were in my art portfolio along with a bunch of other propaganda I created for my art project (

I guess it was ok for me to bring them on the plane since they were art?

Smoke March 4, 2005 8:01 PM

It is just another play on the old effectiveness vs efficiency debate. Sadly noone out there who actually makes the rules has the faintest clue about how all these silly, small but horribly expensive plans barely make a scratch at improving effectiveness of the security process, but have drastic impact on efficiency of the system as a whole.

It reminds me of the fingerprinting system they implimented for 12 billion USD, which isnt really going to stop a terrorist once they are inside the country, and where the money would have a far greater impact if, say for example, 12 billion USD worth of new FBI agents were trained and spread across the country. FBI agents can do far more than just fingerprinting and fingerprints are useless if you cant stop the terrorists (or whoever they might really be after) from doing it in the first place.

ruidh March 4, 2005 8:47 PM

Obviously, we need to make sure no one ever takes anything that God didn’t give them on an airline ever again.

Mandatory nudity, no carryons. Security problems solved.

fire March 4, 2005 9:46 PM

It’s pointless banning lighters if you can carry laptops or cell phones on. Anyone can start a fire using the batteries from those.

Anon March 5, 2005 12:12 AM

First they banned nail-clippers, and I said nothing because I bite my nails.

Then they banned lighters, and I said nothing because I don’t smoke.

Come to tink of it, I am annoyed about the pocket knife ban, but I’m staying quiet about that too.

I’m glad I don’t have a prosthetic limb:

One day I’ll tell my grandkids about being able to fly wearing my own clothes instead of a hospital gown, sitting in a chair instead of strapped to a gourney, eating airline food with plastic cuttlery instead of a being on a drip (OK, that last one might be an improvement: -)

I’m so glad someone’s looking out for my safety!

Thomas Sprinkmeier March 5, 2005 12:37 AM

Nail clippers and pocket knives are fairly useless weapons, especially when facing a planeful of travelers.

It takes a lot of matches or lighters to blow up a plane.

These things are banned “for my safety”. Millions are inconvenienced for the theoretical safety of a planeload of people hijacked by a member of the dreaded nail-clipper-death squad.

I can turn up at a car dealership, ink still wet on my drivers-license, and buy a grossly overpowered car; a deadly weapon in my incompetent hands.

These things are allowed. A few hoons have their righs to buy these cars protected despite the enormous cost to others.

What’s more out of place, a turbo-charged V8 on public roads, or a pair of manicure set on an airplane?

It seems to me the tradeoffs here are grossly unbalanced.

Scate March 5, 2005 3:29 AM

I think their is a bit of a divide between smokers and non smokers on this issue. Their is no acceptable use for pyrotechnics on a plane. Smokers are used to being able to set fire to things in public and are annoyed when their fire-starting tools are not allowed on a plane. Well, tough. I can’t have my swiss army knife either.

Are their other worries on a plane? There sure are. But I’m not going to enumerate them. I just don’t have the desire to encourage potential terrorists nor the balls to want Alberto Gonzalez kicking down my door for noting possible security holes in the TSA–but their is no reason to let matches or lighters on airplanes other than “there are worse things.”

Davi Ottenheimer March 5, 2005 1:08 PM

Wow. Everyone is taking this so seriously. Really, it seems as though the folks who write these laws are just feeling uneasy and/or want to show their constiuents that they are doing something…apparently there is a dearth of good advice, common sense, or trust with experts to help the US design and enforce reasonable security measures.

Gopi Flaherty March 5, 2005 2:29 PM

I’m living in Germany right now. I have a lighter that I like. I don’t smoke, but I have found it useful at times when lighting sparklers, testing what fabric something is, etc.

How can I get it back to the US when I go back home? It’s got compressed gas, so it can’t go in the cargo hold. As far as I can tell, I have to get rid of it.

Up until this recent change, the Victorinox Swiss Army Lighter was my favorite tool (in concept at least.) A knife and a lighter in one. Lighters are carry-on only, knives are cargo-only.

Jojo March 6, 2005 4:14 AM

Note to self: New business idea – start lighter franchise outside airport for arriving smokers.

/dev/null March 6, 2005 4:27 AM

Lighters contain compressed explosive gas and an igniter.

My bowels contain compressed explosive gas and my pacemaker an igniter …

Bruce Schneier March 6, 2005 2:17 PM

“Why do you think this is a bad priority?”

I’d rather we spend money going after terrorists, than spend money making sure no one brings matches on airplanes…on the off change that some terrorist has a plot that involves matches and airplanes.

I tend to prefer security countermeasures that are not rendered worthless by some minimal change of terrorist plan.

pyro March 6, 2005 3:52 PM

Heh, what would a terrorist gain by setting a fire in a passenger jet anyway? So they’d just set the curtains on fire an hope something bad would happen out of it? Sounds like enormous waste of time, efford and money from the terrorist point of view..

Roger March 7, 2005 2:29 AM

I’m surprised at this one–not that the US is considering banning them, but that they haven’t already. So far as I was aware (not being a smoker) they have been prohibited on Australian flights for years, and the empowering legislation is under an international treaty of which the US is also a signatory. These prohibitions came into force well before September 2001 and are not to do with terrorism but with general aviation safety, because such goods actually are dangerous on an aircraft, especially if it depressurizes. Since it is for passenegers’ own benefit, the only “enforcement” that I am aware of is the prominent display of warning posters at airports.

And whatever the magnitude of the threat, it is real. This link to the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority:
includes anecdotes of several recent incidents, including ones in which book matches and butane filled lighters have accidentally started fires on aircraft. Hmm, now I find this:
It seems as if matches and liquid filled lighters are also already banned on US flights, except book matches carried directly on the person (not as carry-on luggage).

It also isn’t really any great inconvenience to smokers; it’s easy to buy a disposable lighter most anywhere after you’ve landed, while the more expensive types like Zippos and Ronsons can be drained of fuel and it is legal to carry them empty.

If you were concerned about terrorists using lighters, the more logical thing would be to say nothing about them. A lighter by itself is not much use as a weapon, while a cabin fire is unlikely to injure more than a few people as the furnishings are all non-flammable or low flammability. Presumably then the concern is that like Richard Reid, you might use it to ignite a bomb or an incendiary. But as others have noted, if prohibited from carrying a lighter you could easily improvise other methods. If permitted to carry a lighter, you might take it as the easiest option, and security officers could add “non-smoker with lighter” to their list of things which increase the odds of you getting a detailed search.

Frank Spychalski March 7, 2005 5:28 AM

With all the high percentage alcohol they sell at the shops, you could build a simple Molotov cocktail. Smash a glass bottle and you have a knife… You will never be 100% safe. You have to remove the reasons why people want a weapon on board.

Fred March 7, 2005 9:27 AM

I have a LONG flight to India coming and I was thinking about the cost of making people comfortable on flights. That progressed to the Japanese sleeping cubicles and I was wondering if more people could be crammed in a smaller plane for even cheaper efficiencies. I decided that it would not work due to the problem of claustrophobia, etc. But this discussion is interesting. How about we can put people to sleep throughout the flight in a small coffin like cubicle (I don’t work in marketing, the marketing types would call it a safety cocoon). Then all our problems would go away. You check in, sit on a comfortably ergonomic mattress, they give you a shot, you are out and then wake up on the other side of the world. I think I should put in a proposal for a govenrment grant to further explore this idea. 🙂

Davi Ottenheimer March 7, 2005 9:50 AM

I think you have an excellent point. Anti-terrorism was probably just a convenient excuse or cover for a passenger restriction that the US aviation authorities felt was long-overdue. Perhaps they tried in the past and failed, due to resistance from smokers, etc. so it is most likely not about terrorism at all.

Probitas March 7, 2005 1:24 PM

As far as I am aware, there are currently no laws on the books preventing somebody boarding an airplane with a Frankenstein’s monster, provided it was in possession of a valid driver’s liscense. If they take away my matches, what defense do I have against that type of attack? When matches are outlawed, only outlaws will have matches.

Chung Leong March 7, 2005 4:39 PM

This is just a backhanded way of imposing a nationwide ban on smoking in airports. I wouldn’t be surprised if the anti-smoke folks have a hand in this. The point isn’t to stop matches and lighters from entering the airport, but to intimidate smokers with the Law. Yeah, it will be easy to get a pack of matches through security. But would you dare use them, even in designated smoking spots? And the chance of airport officials providing alternative means to light your cigerattes is zero.

No fire = no smoking 🙁

Les S. Moore March 7, 2005 8:06 PM

It’s a sad reflection of the drop in IQ of the average citizen and bureaucrat. The problem is that the interiors of some planes contain materials that emit higly toxic gases when aflame, and it’s easy enough to start a fire with undetectable matches. But you can’t stop a terrorist by banning all those little things that can be used as weapons.

Grab a flight attendant, half-twist their neck and threaten to snap it, for example, requires no tools. What now? Handcuff every passenger? Check that diabetics are really carrying insulin and not some HIV-infected saline? These ludicrous restrictions have to stop. What does confiscating an aged matron’s nail clippers have to do with security? Nothing.

Let’s ban kids from carrying pens and sharpened pencils next.

yo March 8, 2005 8:31 AM

My question is why don’t they have inflight CCTV systems? Ones that can view every seat. Security cameras are pretty cheap now and the video can go into their famous black boxes. Here are some different kinds of cameras

Bob Andrews March 8, 2005 3:18 PM

The solution is simple.
Confiscate all matches and lighters on entry to the security zone. Inside the zone, supply nicotine patches and gum to all smokers who request is. On arrival at their destination, either provide a free packet of Airport branded matches or lighter or give arrivals an opportunity to help themselves to a bucket with the collected matches and lighters from departing passengers.

BTW my local Subway now has security cameras screening my every sandwich purchase. I’ve been told terrorists prefer the Spicy Meatball Sub.

John Navratil March 10, 2005 12:45 PM

Several comments were made about starting fires in aircraft. It should be noted that materials used in the interior of aircraft must be flame resistant and will not propagate a flame once the source is removed. So unless you bring something to burn, or shred the in-flight mag you won’t get very far with a lighter or matches.

As for the comment that there are not acceptable uses for matches or lighters and they should be banned, I would observe that there are no acceptable uses for my car keys in a plane, but placed between my fingers like a set of “brass knuckles”, they can be just as dangerous as that lighter. The goal is security, not regulation. If someone is a danger with a lighter, that person is a danger without it.

Richard T March 14, 2005 1:47 PM

Well, I guess it won’t be long before the lighter manufacturers begin a class action law suit against the TSA for their anti-commerce rulings.

Until then, I think I will set up my Zippo concession stand outside the lighter-free zone.

Early retirement, here I come!

larry November 27, 2005 11:31 AM

This is preaching to the converted but anything can be a weapon to a trained expert – Ive seen martial arts demonstrations where a rolled up magazine did serious damage to wooden planks and credit cards (sharpened and unsharpened) made knives pretty much obsolete. Of course the person wielding them could probably have taken out an entire plane load of unarmed passengers with just his hands and feet.

Marktrezz November 28, 2005 9:26 AM

If everyone was issued a mini-baseball bat as they boarded the plane, No one would rise up and cause a fuss, if they knew that there would be 50 other passengers beating them in a split second from all sides.
As for weapons… ever see a lettuce knife? serated, plastic, flat, size of a butcher knife. makes a great necklace…walk through metal detectors. scary.

cureholder December 19, 2005 1:10 PM

There is one really good “reason” to have a lighter in my carry-on luggage, and that’s because I don’t check bags after years of having the airlines lose them and ruining my trips! The only luggage I take is carry-on, which means now because of the powercrats and incompetents in DC, I have to buy a new lighter every time I travel. Idiots!

worried November 23, 2007 1:53 PM

I can’t believe in all the comments about starting fires on planes, no one has mentioned the highly flammable oxygen that is stored in every airplane. And of course, poor people who have to buy a new lighter every time they arrive – they are VERY expensive, about 3 for $l.00!
Why matches on board either???

jim June 13, 2008 6:30 PM

About weapons:
All these items thought to be weapons are only tools. The weapon is between our ears. That is where the method and the intent to attack originates. Maybe they will start taking those (or already are in public school). It is quite easy to take a foot long aluminum ruler on a plane then sharpen it in the head with a pack of emery boards.

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