To the traveler forced to surrender his cricket bat at an airport security checkpoint: I have located your valuable sports gear. I found it inside a state government office building in Pennsylvania, languishing on a shelf between a gardening trowel and a pipe wrench.
If you want it back, follow these simple instructions. Head to the state surplus distribution center in Harrisburg between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. during the workweek. Bring $15, cash only. The wooden club is now yours again. Just remember to check it next time around, or it will end up in TSA’s paws again.
We all know what happens when a passenger attempts to carry a banned item through security: That person advances to the boarding gate while the prohibited object stays behind. But the flier isn’t the only one anticipating a journey; the unwelcome article also has an odyssey in its future, with a mystery final destination. Depending on certain variables, it could end up in a haz-mat can, or with law enforcement officers, or in the arms of a new owner.
But I am jumping ahead. We must start at the beginning, in the airport screening area.
The TSA official will take you now.
Memories of carry-on-the-kitchen-sink travel are starting to fade. In a gentler time, you could bring items into the cabin that sloshed and sliced and thwacked balls into deep left field. But that carefree era of flying ended about two months after the 2001 terrorist attacks, when the federal government created the Transportation Security Administration.
Over the years, travelers have learned proper screening etiquette. We can rattle off the 3-1-1 rule like our ABCs. We slip off our shoes without stumbling. However, every so often, we get lazy. We overlook a bottle of water in our tote bag or a Swiss Army knife in our Dopp kit.
“You hear, ‘Oops, I forgot’ a lot,” said Daniel Derner, a TSA officer.
The forbidden materials fall into several categories, and the label it earns determines the next step in the process. Beverages, for example, are tossed into a garbage receptacle. The officers hand over all guns and illegal substances to the local police. They might also alert the cops if the item — and its owner — flout a state or local law, such as possessing brass knuckles or billy clubs in New York City. The remaining objects, meanwhile, await their fate, which rolls up on wheels.
On a recent Monday morning near New Jersey’s Newark airport, Igor Markasyan set an empty blue tub and a cardboard box on a trolley and loaded the rig into a black SUV. The lead officer was dressed in TSA designs, his winter hat and heavy coat displaying the agency’s initialism. He climbed into the car alone and drove off.
Every day, at 450 airports nationwide, TSA employees empty out the banned and forgotten items amassed over a 24-hour period at the screening areas. At Newark, one of the largest facilities in the country, the “property custodian” visits 10 checkpoints in three terminals, dedicating several hours to the collection. The officer might gather 100 to 150 pounds on a typical day. The weight doubles over the holidays.
Markasyan, who resembles Wallace Shawn and sounds like Boris, started the day’s tour of duty in the busiest section of the airport, United’s hub in Terminal C. He parked his cart near the checkpoint, unlocked a metal cabinet and pulled out a container filled with grooming and cleaning products, such as shaving cream, hairspray and a giant can of Lysol. He dumped the flammable items in one bin and the non-fiery substances (Vaseline, sunblock) in another.
Before plunging into a second receptacle, Markasyan paused for a wardrobe change. He slipped off the blue plastic gloves and replaced them with a pair made of Kevlar. The protective gear is essential; he once cut his hand on a blender blade. Yes, he received stitches, and yes, people really do travel with blenders. A lot of people.
The bin resembled a kitchen drawer messy with steak knives, cake cutters, screwdrivers, scissors, corkscrews and a railroad spike. Markasyan tossed the metal jumble into an empty box, creating a loud racket that sounded like the Tin Man falling out of bed.
In addition to the obviously unacceptable items, the TSA also rules out objects that appear benign but harbor a dark streak. For example, air pumps and barbells can be used as bludgeoning instruments; wiry contraptions that evoke bombs and weapon-shaped novelty items, such as water pistols and iPhone cases with brass knuckle handles, could create hysteria.
“We don’t allow replicas because they could cause a panic,” said Lisa Farbstein, an agency spokesperson.
Markasyan tossed a plastic bow and a toy gun longer than a child’s arm into the expanding stash.
Before pushing off to the next checkpoint, he had one more load to gather: lost and found.
People are forgetful, especially when juggling multiple bags and scrambling for their flight. They leave behind all sorts of odds and ends, including dentures, a single shoe and sleeping aids. The most common orphans are cellphones, laptops, keys, IDs and belts.
“We have so many belts, we could give away a belt as a token of appreciation,” said Ofelia Ruiz, the agency’s customer support manager. “And glasses, glasses, glasses, glasses.”
Officers inventory every discovery, even the tiniest hairpin.
“The simplest thing could mean the world to the passenger,” Ruiz said.
The morning’s list of finds demonstrated this position: a black Hugo Boss belt, a silver tiara, glasses with a missing lens, a dog license and a smartphone that started to ring.
“Your customer lost his phone,” Ruiz explained to the voice on the other end, calling from Israel. “When he picks up his rental, let him know that he left it at TSA security. Thank you. Shalom.”
After three checkpoints, Markasyan’s pace slowed as he strained against the growing poundage on the cart. He performed an unofficial weigh-in, estimating about 40 pounds of aerosols, 50 pounds of liquids and 70 pounds of “prohibs.”
He had seven more pick-ups to go.
TSA wants to clear up a few misunderstandings.
First, the agency does not “confiscate” banned goods; the passenger “surrenders” them. Second, giving up the goods isn’t the only option. For instance, you can return to the airline’s ticketing counter and check them, run them back to your car, or hand them off to a friend who is not traveling. Some airports also have a mail service so that you can be reunited with your belongings at home. When the passenger doesn’t have the time or willpower to do any of the above, however, the only choice is to relinquish the itema non grata.
Another monster misconception: Many people assume that the officers keep the items. Not true.
The liquid and aerosol substances are destroyed, for instance. At Newark, they are stored in a small shed surrounded by tall reeds and sparse trees. Inside, several blue canisters hold the materials, which the employee separates by type (explosive, flammable gas, etc.). A contractor eventually hauls it away.
After completing his rounds at the airport, I followed Markasyan to the disposal station. He barely glanced down as he chucked the stuff. I silently shed a tear for three bottles of Ron Barceló rum that would never see a cocktail glass or summer sunset.
The remaining goods in his car continued onward, to the agency’s office adjacent to the Keane University campus. The staff fills empty boxes with 50 pounds of prohibs and stacks them on shelves and any available floor space. Larger, longer items, such as golf clubs and bats, are arrayed like a bouquet of thick stems.
Every three or four months, a truck carts off the loads and heads west to Harrisburg. Lost items valued at less than $500 are also in the mix. (The agency holds them for 30 days before shipping them out.)
The 18-wheeler was scheduled to arrive the following day. I regarded the assorted sealed cartons and suddenly heard a siren’s voice calling out, “Open me.” I obliged.
Farbstein cut open a taped box marked 12/28. “It’s a sickle,” she exclaimed, grabbing the crescent-shape tool from the top layer. “I have to take a picture of this!”
(Farbstein contributes photos to the agency’s Twitter and Instagram accounts. Some highlights include a green comb with a concealed blade and a gun sewn into a teddy bear.)
I fished out a Hobbit letter opener still in its packaging, a half-dozen Leathermans, a bag of dirty nails and a cleaver. Farbstein grabbed the hatchet for a portrait.
When I unearthed a pillbox in the form of a replica gun cylinder, instinct told me to unscrew the top and bottom sections. I noticed a dusting of herb-green flakes.
“I found pot!” I declared with pride.
A TSA officer sniffed a confirmation.
Several major airports and many minor ones across the Northeast send their abandoned property to the State Surplus Distribution Center, which resides in a residential area of Harrisburg. The truck that picked up 2,975 pounds of prohibs and 1,275 pounds of unclaimed goods from Newark on Jan. 6 would later collect TSA wares from JFK and LaGuardia. Smaller facilities mail a box or two to the store every few months. (Washington- area airports funnel their items to the Wytheville Surplus Store/Distribution Center, in southwest Virginia.)
When the goods arrive, the staff weeds through the mounds, searching for the bad apples in the bunch. They pull out any items that have no function beyond causing physical harm, such as the lipstick with the hidden knife and blades that fold up into a credit card shape. Handcuffs — fuzzy or metal — don’t make the cut, either.
“If it’s a comb, it needs to be a comb,” said Troy Thompson, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of General Services. “If it’s a lipstick, it needs to be a lipstick.”
Some of the inventory goes online and is sold in bulk — a 50-pound mixed box of knives, for example, or designer purses. The rest goes downstairs to the thrift store that also sells used government office supplies, such as desks, mugs and BlackBerry car chargers.
Thompson says the shop’s prices are about 50 to 65 percent lower than listings on eBay or at standard retail stores. To prove his point, he showed me a $50 vise-grip pipe wrench that goes for $90 at Lowe’s. Despite the liquidation prices, the state has earned $1.5 million since the program began in 2004. (All proceeds go to the commonwealth. Oh snap, Jersey.)
The five-year employee still shakes his head in disbelief at the strangeness of the pieces and laments the heartbreaking losses.
“It always amazes me at how many people travel with kitchen items — rolling pins, frying pans,” he said. “One of the items that always makes me sad to see are the wedding cake knives, because of the sentimental value.”
The most recent crop was short on culinary tools and newlywed souvenirs. I found an unused 12-piece dinner-knife set, a package with three steak knives and a hippo-shape cheese knife. Total tally: $7.
At the front of the shop, a glass case contained higher-end knives. I counted 18 basic Swiss Army knives for $5 each, plus two rows of deluxe versions of the cardinal-red tool ($15 or $20, depending on the number of extras).
For the hunting knives, I asked Jeremy, a staffer with outdoors experience, for assistance. He told me that the five-inch Tomahawk blade with the scorpion image on the handle would please any deer-hunting mate. The five-inch Remington, meanwhile, could do some damage to a bear. And if I were to buy Jeremy a thank-you gift for his helpful services, I would spring for the “Made in Pakistan” knife with a wood handle, worn leather case and price tag of $5.
For myself, oh, I had so many choices. Snow globes from NYC, Germany, London and the Land of Laughing Teddy Bears. Souvenir baseball bats for the Yankees, Mets and Red Sox. Sticks and rods used for a variety of activities: hockey, lacrosse, golf, billiards, curtain-hanging. Hand tools for $2 apiece. Scissors for three for a dollar.
I was rummaging through $1 wine openers when an employee shouted, “You’ve got 54 minutes.” I was hoisting a red power drill when she hollered, “Ten minutes.” I was trying on a bullet-bedazzled belt when she informed me that I had only three minutes left.
I left the store right at closing time, hearing the door lock behind me. Walking down the long hallway to the exit, I gripped the manila envelope filled with my TSA purchases: six knives and a hammer, plus a government invoice for $21.20.
No traveler wants to lose his or her stuff, especially to the TSA. To safeguard your belongings at airport checkpoints, simply follow these tips and guidelines, then carry on.
• TSA has an online tool and app called “When I Fly, Can I Bring . . .?” The feature covers more than 3,500 items, including bleach (no), peanut butter (special instructions) and scissors (yes, if the blades are shorter than four inches long). If you have any doubts, type in the specific item and wait for the results.
• Many items prohibited in carry-on bags are permitted in checked luggage. For firearms and ammunition, consult with the agency on proper packing protocol. Also be aware of state and local laws that ban certain weapons and personal protection devices. You can be arrested at the airport for possessing such illegal materials.
• If the officer prohibits your item, remember that surrendering it isn’t your only option. You can mail it back home (some airports have on-site postal facilities), hand it off to a non-traveling friend, stick it in your car or send it in a checked bag.
• Condense your items into one or two trays. Place all small and valuable items in your carry-on bag; avoid using multiple bowls. You can hold your cash or wallet in your hand inside the screening machine. And keep your jewelry on. If a piece sets off the alarm, the officer can wand you.
• After the screening, first secure your laptop, then put on your shoes.
• Tape a business card or contact info on all gadgets and computers. Attach name tags to all bags. This way, TSA can quickly track you down and return the lost item.
• If you realize that you’re missing something, contact TSA’s lost-and-found office at the airport. The agency’s Web site has a list of airport phone numbers. After you claim the item, an employee will set it aside for pick-up or shipping. (Postage will be paid by you.)
• If you had to relinquish an item and miss it terribly, check government-auction Web sites or visit a state surplus store that sells TSA goods. For example, try GovDeals.com, the State Surplus Distribution Center in Harrisburg or the Wytheville Surplus Store/Distribution Center in southwest Virginia. You might not find your cherished object, but you could discover something similar — or even better.
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