TSA confiscates oddities, turns into money for states

8:30 AM, Feb 22, 2012   |    comments
Items confiscated by the Transportation Security Administration are displayed at the TSA's training center at Newark Liberty International Airport on Nov. 17, 2011
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By Bart Jansen, USA TODAY

From samurai swords to hatchets to snow globes, the Transportation Security Administration collects tons of unusual objects each year that passengers try to carry onto planes.

The objects are what the TSA deems weapons or other threats to flight security. They're surrendered at checkpoints by forgetful or harried passengers who would rather give them up than miss a flight or return to the check-in counter and pay extra to put them in a checked bag.

Among the most common: Swiss Army knives or similarly sharp multiuse pocket tools, though the gamut runs to swords or even fuzzy handcuffs that are more for bedroom use than law enforcement.

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And despite cynical suggestions from angry travelers that security officers keep the items for themselves, the TSA turns over the property to state agencies and commercial vendors, which cart it away to sell. Although public auctions yield a fraction of retail prices, dozens of states have found some revenue in the contraband.

"It's kind of amazing what people will try to take on board," says Troy Thompson, spokesman for Pennsylvania's Department of General Services, which takes some of the contraband. "To them (passengers), it's an item that's not threatening, but in these days and times it is threatening."

Pennsylvania collects truckloads of items from airports, including New York City's John F. Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty. The state has raised $700,000 from selling them since 2004, Thompson says.

The most sought-after items by buyers are among the most often left behind: pocket knives, scissors and corkscrews, which are typically sold in boxes of 100. Occasionally, machetes, samurai swords and even an African spear are trucked to the state warehouse in Harrisburg, he says.

The passenger shakedown

About 30 states have collected TSA-relinquished property since the agency was created to provide stricter baggage screening after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, according to Scott Pepperman, executive director of the National Association of State Agencies for Surplus Property.

Because the TSA had trouble coping with the accumulation, with 10 tons of contraband piling up at Los Angeles International Airport alone, Pepperman helped negotiate an agreement a decade ago with the federal government for states to take possession of the surrendered items.

"It was of no use to TSA. It's of no value to them. The cost and care of storage and handling was exceeding the commercial value of it to them," Pepperman says. "Some (states) put them up on eBay. Some have their own websites. Others have auctions."

Some states, he says, donate useful items to schools, fire departments and charities.

Some items have questionable resale value. Items that crossed Pepperman's path while he worked in the Pennsylvania surplus agency until two years ago included machetes, meat slicers and a box of rocks.

"We collected more fuzzy handcuffs than you would ever see in your life - boxes and boxes of fuzzy handcuffs," he says.

Despite a policy of not carrying sharp objects onto planes that dates to just after 9/11 and one that limits liquids and gels that dates to 2006, the TSA continues to collect objects that clearly have malevolent possibilities.

This month, a spear gun showed up at Newark, joining assorted hatchets, chains, inert grenades, metal throwing stars and bullet-holding bandoliers.

Al Della Fave, spokesman for the Port Authority Police Department for New York and New Jersey, admired a recent find of decorative daggers from the Middle East in an ornate wooden box that a traveler carried under his arm.

"People think they're good to go - and they're not," Della Fava says.

More innocent-looking items also are relinquished. Hundreds of snow globes from Disneyland are in the mountain of TSA contraband piled up in Sacramento, says Michael Liang, spokesman for California's Department of General Services.

The liquid in the snow globes makes the souvenirs a forbidden item in carry-on bags on the possibility it could be explosive.

'Not a big moneymaker'

Nobody keeps track of how many tons of relinquished property is handed over or how much states receive in sales annually. Collecting, sorting and selling the odd objects is a chore, and the amount some states make may seem paltry.

This month, California had one of its quarterly auctions and got $9,800 for TSA-confiscated items, Liang says.

"It's not a lot of money, but every bit helps," he says.

In Alabama, the surplus property division at the state Department of Economic and Community Affairs got about 3 tons last year from airports in Alabama and Florida. Sales totaled about $15,000 for the year, says Larry Childers, an agency spokesman.

"It's a net plus for us, but not a big moneymaker," Childers says.

Georgia opted out of collecting the objects in 2008 because it was too much trouble, says Steve Ekin, the surplus program manager for the Department of Administrative Services.

"It was a lot of work for very little return," Ekin says.

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