The TSA made half a million dollars last year because you forgot your change

December 5, 2013

Airports that collect more than $10,000 in loose change (Source: TSA report obtained by The Washington Post)

The next time you go through airport security, check those gray and white bins where you unload your pockets. Last year, the Transportation Security Administration collected $531,395.22 in change left behind at checkpoints.

Federal law requires the TSA to report the amount of unclaimed money they keep every year to Congress. The fiscal 2012 report, obtained by The Washington Post, shows the agency collected about $499,000 in U.S. currency, and another $32,000 in foreign currency, at their checkpoints.

TSA outposts at hub airports, such as John F. Kennedy International in New York or Dallas-Fort Worth International in Texas, collect cash from smaller regional airports, then forward it to TSA headquarters in Arlington. Passengers entering Miami International Airport left the largest amount of change at security last year, $39,613, while people leaving Las Vegas — perhaps flush with slot machine winnings — forgot $26,900.21.

Passengers left $8,207.21 behind at Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport, $5,247.56 at Reagan Washington National Airport and a whopping $16,536.92 at Washington Dulles International Airport, the report said.

In total, TSA agents collected more than $10,000 in pocket change at each of 13 major airports across the country, in cities such as San Francisco, Phoenix, New York, Dallas and Atlanta.

U.S. airports that collected more than $10,000 in change last year

(Note: Airports marked in blue collected between $10,000 and $14,999. Airports marked in red collected between $15,000 and $19,999. Airports in green collected more than $20,000 in lose change, according to the TSA’s report.)

The half-million dollars the TSA collected in fiscal 2012 was the most ever reported to Congress. From 2008 to 2010, the agency reported finding about $400,000 left at security checkpoints each year. In 2011, passengers left $383,000 in those little gray bins.

Current law requires the TSA spend that money on providing civil aviation security — essentially, to supplement its overall mission. But so far, the TSA has only spent about $6,500 of the money it collected last year. The TSA report to Congress says the agency spent that money on the translation of some airport checkpoint signage into foreign languages and on miscellaneous administrative overhead.

The slow rate of spending has some in Congress pushing for a, um, change.

On Tuesday, the House passed H.R. 1095, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), which would require the TSA to fork that cash over to nonprofit organizations that provide travel-related assistance to military personnel or their families.

But here’s the funny part: Requiring the TSA to hand over the unclaimed coins could actually cost the agency more money than it collects.

A similar measure Miller introduced in the last Congress, H.R. 2179, would have awarded the money to United Service Organizations, Inc., the nonprofit that runs in-airport lounges for military personnel. The Congressional Budget Office estimated [pdf] that collecting, accounting for and transferring the money to the USO would cost $1.2 million — $700,000 more than the actual amount collected.

That’s a drop in the proverbial bucket for the federal government, and for the TSA, which had a budget of about $7.6 billion in fiscal 2012. The CBO’s analysis of Miller’s new version of the bill says it would not “have a significant net impact on the budget in any given year.”

Miller’s office didn’t return a phone call seeking comment. Ross Feinstein, a TSA spokesman, said only that the agency doesn’t comment on pending legislation.

Among the hundreds of airports where the TSA provides security, Guam’s Antonio B. Won Pat International Airportcollected the least money: $1.70.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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Reid Wilson | December 5, 2013