Fines Lurk for Fliers Toting Banned Items

Nancy Malooly hustled her shoes off, chucked some lip-gloss into the trash and was carefully polite to the screeners as she made her way through Dallas Love Field's security checkpoint the other day.

"I try to be as nice as possible," said the Dallas resident. "I just want to get through smoothly."

Ms. Malooly didn't know it, but her perennial politeness may someday save her from getting slapped with a fine by the Transportation Security Administration.

Most passengers don't realize that if they take banned items through airport security - knowingly or unknowingly - they could face as much as $10,000 in fines. Usually the threat is obvious, such as being caught with a loaded gun. But try to pass through metal detectors with a large pair of scissors and a bad attitude and you could be out as much as $1,500.

TSA assessed $1.4 million in passenger fines in 2005, and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and three other Sun Belt airports topped the list, in part, said one federal official, because these states usually have more gun owners along with laws that allow individuals to carry firearms. D/FW security uncovers about one gun a week during the screening process, said Dallas-based TSA spokeswoman Andrea McCauley.

Agency officials say the financial penalties are needed to enforce rules on prohibited items. But some passengers, already frustrated by what they say are uneven standards at security checkpoints, contend that fines are unnecessary. They say some vaguely worded reasons for fines, such as "interference with screening,'' are too arbitrary.

And some travel industry experts said they didn't even know about the TSA's crackdown and question whether it's effective.

"Confiscating items, yes. But fining people? I had no idea," said Tim Winship, contributing editor of SmarterTravel.com and publisher of FrequentFlier.com, a popular flier information and advice Web site.

"The fact that I'm not [aware of this] would suggest that the TSA is doing a lousy job of getting the word out. They're obviously catching people unawares."

Ms. McCauley said the organization frequently talks about fines with the news media.

"Every time I go out there to talk about prohibited items - guns, knives - I bring up civil penalties," she said. Fines also were in place under the Federal Aviation Administration, which was in charge of airport security before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, she said.

From January to July 16, TSA issued 1,450 fines nationwide, Ms. McCauley said; a small number compared with the millions of prohibited items passengers surrendered to screeners during that time.

At least 59 million fliers passed through D/FW in 2005. TSA officials issued $45,110 in fines, the fifth-highest amount in the nation. Information on individuals fined at D/FW was not immediately available.

D/FW officials weren't surprised at the airport's spot on the list, given its size. But Mike Moncrief, Fort Worth mayor and member of the D/FW Airport Board of Directors, said he was concerned travelers were in the dark.

Security areas are full of signs about which items are barred, he said, so why not take the same care to alert passengers about fines, too? TSA is responsible for security areas, the mayor said, but maybe D/FW should look into giving travelers more notice.

Phoenix leads list

Fines vary widely from airport to airport.

Chicago O'Hare International is the second-busiest airport in the world, but its TSA penalties put it 10th-highest in fines in 2005. Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport is the sixth-largest airport in the country with 40 million passengers in 2005, but TSA security there gave out the highest total fines by far - $77,420.

"Clearly we wouldn't want to be at the top of that list," said Todd Sanders, a spokesman for the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce.

Phoenix is a fast-growing airport, Mr. Sanders said. Officials there have to deal with that growth as well as changes in carry-on rules, which might account for Phoenix's high numbers, he said.

The TSA's Ms. McCauley said a number of factors probably caused certain airports to issue more fines. Among them, she said: states with more gun owners.

"The more people that carry [guns], the more incidents you're likely to have at your checkpoint," she said.

Tom Parsons, publisher of Arlington-based Bestfares.com, agreed.

"There's too many cowboys in Phoenix. You think we've got cowboys in Texas? Go to Arizona," said Mr. Parsons, who also hadn't known that TSA could issue fines.

But permissive guns laws don't always mean more penalties.

Minnesota allows residents to carry concealed weapons, but TSA officials in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport issued roughly the same amount in fines as Dallas Love Field, a much smaller airport. Love Field assessed $15,100 and was 29th-highest in the nation.

TSA tries to be consistent with its penalties, said Ms. McCauley, but it's impossible to set a fine for every possible situation.

The agency explicitly outlines fine ranges for trying to bring guns, explosives and ammunition on board a plane. It also gives a range for the weapons category, which includes "sharp objects, clublike items and other prohibited items" for a penalty of $250 to $1,500.

Passengers can be fined for their actions, as well. For example, "interference with screening" that includes physical contact could cost a traveler between $1,500 and $5,000, and "nonphysical contact" between $500 and $1,500.

Dear flier: You're fined

People usually don't know they've been fined until a letter arrives at their homes. In reviewing incident reports, TSA officials consider factors like whether the passenger tried to conceal the item or the "attitude of the violator."

Ms. McCauley said fliers can fight fines through an informal conversation or a formal hearing. Those who contest the penalties may eventually have to travel to the airport where TSA issued the fine.

Money from the fines goes into the U.S. Treasury General Fund - not to TSA. If the violator doesn't pay, the Department of Treasury takes actions to collect payment, such as withholding the violator's tax refunds.

Bernie Moore, arriving recently at Love Field from Denver, said it made sense for TSA to have fines, but he thought individual screeners had too much discretion.

In the harried atmosphere of an airport terminal, something as simple as a minor flare-up in tempers could land harmless people in trouble, he said.

"It relies too much on people under stress. Things like that intensify in a hurry," Mr. Moore said.

Marcus Whitaker of Fort Worth said TSA needed to take certain measures - including fines - to protect passengers.

"I really don't have any bias toward it,'' he said, "probably because it hasn't happened to me yet."



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