What Happens to the Junk Surrendered at TSA Checkpoints?

Don't bother searching online auction sites for pocket knives handed over to airport screeners, at least not those surrendered at the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport.

While some airports around the country give the contraband to schools or hand it over to nonprofit organizations -- which raise funds by selling the confiscated items online -- the local airport is among many in California that sends the stuff to another federal agency, which then throws it all away.

"Everything gets destroyed," said Craig Piper, a security coordinator employed by the local airport.

Everything, however, except the more intriguing items kept on a bookshelf as a trophy case of sorts in the airport office of the Transportation Security Administration, the federal agency created in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that oversees the screening of passengers at the nation's airports.

The shelf contains obvious weapons like switchblades, short- and long-bladed knives and brass knuckles, but also items like lighters that look like guns and combustible materials in spray cans.

There are two leather straps that passengers described as page-holders for books, a local TSA screener said.

The straps, however, have a metal weight in one end, and the screener demonstrated convincingly how it could be used as a blackjack to bludgeon someone.

Federal authorities in charge say the relatively small haul of items collected at the airport is taken to the dump, though some metal objects may be melted down for scrap.

According to federal figures on airports nationwide obtained by the Deseret Morning News in Salt Lake City, screeners at the San Luis Obispo airport confiscated more than 11,000 potential weapons from nearly 360,000 passengers from February 2002 to March 2003.

The local rate of 29 potential weapons per 1,000 passengers is higher than at the largest airports in the nation, but then the airports with the highest rates were among the smallest in the country.

Despite the figures, the TSA announced a plan last month to reduce by Oct. 1 the number of screeners at San Luis Obispo's airport to 13 from the current 21.

Federal authorities prefer the term surrender to confiscate, since passengers are not technically required to hand over the items -- they can give them to a loved one not flying, throw them away or put them in their cars parked nearby.

The federal agency has given the surrendered items to the Santa Barbara office of the Department of Justice, which disposes of them, for about a year. Prior to that, the state's Department of Surplus Property took the items, which it tried to auction off. That wasn't working well, however.

"Our warehouse was filling up with junk we couldn't get rid of," said Matt Bender, a spokesman with the state Department of Surplus Property in Sacramento.

It's not uncommon for passenger contraband from other airports to wind up on an online auction site, said Nico Melendez, a TSA spokesman. When it does, he said, it's not the government doing the selling but the non-profit agencies the TSA turns the items over to from some airports around the country.

At some airports, passengers can use envelopes to mail the banned items to themselves. But with close parking lots allowing passengers to quickly return forbidden items to their cars, that option is not offered here.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press

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