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2/6/2003

Flying leftovers

By Sara Kehaulani Goo
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Frequent flier Cuyler Thompson said he should have known better. Several months ago, he tried to go through an airport security checkpoint carrying a beloved pocketknife bequeathed by his grandfather. The knife was confiscated.

Last month, Thompson was rushing to catch a flight at Baltimore-Washington International Airport with two tiny Swiss Army knives in his carry-on bag — a meager personal compensation for the loss of his grandfather’s keepsake. Security screeners stopped him again, and Thompson had to surrender those knives, too.

“I kiss them goodbye,” he said as he ran off for a flight.

Thompson is hardly a rarity among air travelers. More than a year into strict air security rules, passengers still aren’t leaving their guns, switchblades and rolling pins at home. At security checkpoints nationwide, travelers continue to show up with weapon-like items deemed too threatening for a packed airliner at 30,000 feet.

Airport screeners last year confiscated several million knives, bludgeons and firearms, along with the occasional sword and deer antlers. Most unsettling, guards grabbed 37,504 box cutters — the weapons used by the Sept. 11, 2001 hijackers.

“Why people continue to bring box cutters on board is beyond me,” said Brian Doyle, spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration, the new agency in charge of airport security.

Few confiscated items are returned to their owners. So airport storerooms are filling up with scissors, corkscrews, screwdrivers, razor blades and Swiss Army knives. Airport managers are unsure what to do with them. Some arrange to have them hauled to scrap-metal companies; others are thinking about donating the objects to appropriate groups.

The federal government has issued no guidelines, said Carter Morris, vice president for security policy at the American Association of Airport Executives. He doesn’t know what to tell the many airport chiefs who e-mail him seeking direction, he said. “They say: ‘Look at all these boxes in my office. I have 13,000 nail clippers.’”

Airports are overrun with the usual forgotten possessions — coats, sweaters, scarves — as well. Now, a new category is showing up: belts, as forgetful passengers strip them off for screening, then walk away without them.

The government collected about 406,000 items during December. In 2002, the first year records were kept, screeners confiscated more than a million knives, 1.8 million other cutting tools, 11,000 club-type objects and 981 firearms. Some, particularly the ones involving guns, resulted in 844 arrests.

“It starts to mount up,” said Wanda Jenkins, property technician at Reagan National Airport.

Some airports have come up with original — and questionable — ways of unloading their caches. Oakland International Airport last year tried to sell some of its confiscated scissors and Leatherman pocketknives on eBay until the government intervened, saying it was unfair for the airport to profit from passengers’ belongings.

Both National and Dallas-Fort Worth International regularly hand over bins of items to scrap-metal companies for destruction. National plans to donate some of its large scissors collection to the Boy Scouts.

Some passengers get their possessions returned — but not without time and effort. The simplest method is to step out of line and take the item back to the car or mail it at an airport post office or express-mail drop box. Paradies Shops, a chain with gift shops at 59 airports, began selling mailing supplies at its stores near checkpoints in the fall.

“People forget what they’ve got” in their carry-on bags, said TSA spokesman Robert Johnson. “They don’t pay attention to what they're carrying, and they find out the hard way what is and isn’t allowed.”