Airport passengers surrender tons of property to TSA

Toy guns, power tools, knives and cooking utensils Toy guns, power tools, knives and cooking utensils are among the items left by passengers at TSA screening points at LaGuardia Airport. (Feb. 21, 2013) Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

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Passengers at New York City's three airports surrendered about 10 tons of property -- corkscrews, tools, frying pans and other items that could be used as weapons -- in the past five years, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

That's the equivalent of the combined weight of four midsized sedans.

"Anything that can be used as a weapon," must be surrendered at security checkpoints under a program called Voluntarily Abandoned Property, said Veda Simmons, TSA customer support manager at LaGuardia Airport. Agents find most of the confiscated items in carry-on luggage, she said.

"A lot of times we'll have, like, weapon replicas that are not allowed," said Simmons, a Westbury resident. "Cologne that's shaped like a grenade. Sometimes we have huge mallets, sometimes we have saws. We've had different car parts."

Other times, the weapons are real. Port Authority police last week arrested a Brooklyn man after TSA agents found three switchblades in his carry-on bag at LaGuardia.

Items surrendered at LaGuardia are stored in boxes in Room 115, a large closet in a dilapidated former hangar owned by American Airlines. A box opened by TSA workers revealed a heavy cast-iron skillet, small purses with fake brass-knuckle handles and blades of various lengths.

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When the boxes of items reach 35 pounds, they're shipped to Harrisburg, Pa., and sold at a government-surplus warehouse or online auction.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the federal government tightened rules about what passengers can take aboard. The list has changed depending on national security threats at any given time.

Even with more than a dozen years to get used to the limitations, some passengers try to board planes with banned items, said Anthony Catoggio, a lead TSA officer at LaGuardia.

"A lot of people are, unfortunately, late for their flights, and it comes down to, are they going to miss their flights or are they going to check their Swiss army knife?" Catoggio said. "That's what happens: they surrender the Swiss army knife."

Travelers also leave money behind, officials said. The TSA in 2010 collected $409,085.56 in loose change nationwide from those who forgot to pick up their coins after passing through security.

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Paul Hudson, treasurer of FlyersRights.org, a nonprofit airline passenger consumer organization, said the TSA should do more to return property surrendered at airports.

"There should be a way to have nondangerous property returned to rightful owners," Hudson said.

If property can't be returned, proceeds from the sale of it should be channeled to airline consumer groups, he said.

"The problem with the present system is it gives a financial incentive not to change the system," Hudson said.

LaGuardia, Kennedy Airport and Newark Liberty Airport in the past five years sent about 21,025 pounds of surrendered property to the Pennsylvania auction, according to TSA statistics.

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Passengers often tell the TSA that they fear packing valuables in checked luggage, which can get lost, and attempt to take items onto the plane in their carry-on bags, TSA officials said.

The TSA gives passengers the option of putting prohibited items into checked luggage, taking them to their car, or giving them to someone to take home. In airports with a U.S. Post Office, the item could be mailed, TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said.

Anything surrendered is not returned. Weapons found in carry-on luggage or concealed by a passenger, including firearms or long knives, are investigated by Port Authority police.

The TSA doesn't profit from the sale of surrendered property, Simmons said.

"You'll see a lot of pocket knives; you see a lot of hand tools, files," said Troy Thompson, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of General Service, which conducts the auctions. "I can't explain why someone would try to bring a rolling pin or frying pan or a skillet onto an airliner."

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Items from airports around the Northeast are sold at auctions that include other surplus government property. The sales have yielded $800,000 since 2004, and the online auctions have totaled $140,000 since August 2012.

The money goes into the general operations fund of the Pennsylvania Department of General Service, Thompson said, adding that he did not know how much of the revenue came from property surrendered at TSA checkpoints.

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