The changes attracted criticism from labor unions representing flight attendants.
"This policy was designed to make the lives of TSA staff easier, but not make flights safer," Stacy Martin, president of the Transportation Workers Union local that represents Southwest Airlines Co. flight attendants, said in a statement.
"While we agree that a passenger wielding a small knife or swinging a golf club or hockey stick poses less of a threat to the pilot locked in the cockpit, these are real threats to passengers and flight attendants in the passenger cabin," Martin said.
Pistole's announcement reflects "a poor and shortsighted decision by the TSA," the Flight Attendants Union Coalition, representing five labor groups, said in a statement. "We believe that these proposed changes will further endanger the lives of all flight attendants and the passengers we work so hard to keep safe and secure."
Changes removing items like sporting goods from the prohibited list are based on recommendations from a TSA working group that's trying to weed out commonly confiscated items that don't present a security threat, agency spokesman David Castelveter said.
"These are popular items we see regularly," Castelveter said. "They don't present a risk to transportation security."
Pistole, the former No. 2 official at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, has stressed the use of intelligence and "risk- based" security during his tenure leading TSA. The agency is moving away from uniform procedures that apply to every passenger and toward efforts to perform background checks on passengers before they arrive at an airport.
Besides conforming with international rules, the TSA policy changes will keep U.S. checkpoint officials from spending time confiscating objects that don't present a risk, Pistole said. The changes will let more passengers go through screening lines more quickly, he said.
"The idea that we have to look for, to find and then somehow resolve whatever that prohibited item is that takes time and effort," Pistole said. "That may detract us from that item that could lead to a catastrophic failure on an aircraft."
The greatest threat to U.S. travelers is currently small, non-metallic bombs, not knives or sporting equipment, Pistole said.
Overseas passengers will no longer have to check the qualifying knives as they pass through the U.S.
The agency will still prohibit some knives, including those with locking blades or molded handles, like those used by hunters for skinning, Pistole said. There's still concern about knives clearly intended for use as weapons, he said.
Box cutters, like those used by the Sept. 11 terrorists, and razor blades will still be banned.
"The sensitivity to those who were attacked on 9/11 still resonates strongly," Pistole said. "There's just too much emotion associated with them, particularly the box cutters."
The agency also is carving out two exceptions to its ban on most baseball and softball bats. It will allow souvenir, novelty baseball bats less than 24 inches long and will permit lightweight plastic bats even if they're more than 2 feet long (61 centimeters).