Sep. 9--Four years after terrorist strikes sparked a drastic overhaul of travel procedures, federal screeners at Logan International Airport are still seizing roughly 11,500 banned items, such as knives, scissors, and pepper spray, every month from passengers getting on planes.
After remaining steady for years, the number of seized items appears to have increased slightly in recent months as passenger volumes rise, federal officials say. And a ban on bringing cigarette lighters on planes, imposed in April, has resulted in the confiscation of roughly 14,000 lighters a month, in addition to the other carry-on contraband. Bizarre items such as chain saws, dud hand grenades, and hatchets periodically get seized, too.
Mystified that so many travelers still haven't gotten the message to leave dangerous items at home, Transportation Security Administration officials have begun implementing a new solution: "amnesty bins." The bins -- five installed in recent weeks and three more due to be put in next week -- sit at the entrance of Logan's security checkpoints. By mid-October, all 12 checkpoints are scheduled to have them.
The 6-foot-tall bins include a display case filled with banned items to remind people what is prohibited. They let people who realize they're carrying dangerous items avoid having to get out of line to find a trash can, or arrange to mail the items home. They are also a way for travelers to avoid being fined or grilled by a screener about a suspicious item. The TSA can impose fines normally ranging from $300 to $1,100 if passengers are caught with a banned item.
"It's a good way for us to keep the lines moving," said John Malui, a TSA screening manager at Logan. "We get some crazy items from people here."
Malui himself designed the bins. He owned a North Shore construction business before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks motivated him to join the TSA in 2002. He has been assembling the aluminum and steel bins in an extra room in the airport's baggage screening zone during available time in his work week.
The five bins already installed are in the international Terminal E and at security checkpoints including those for AirTran, Continental Airlines, JetBlue, and United Airlines. Next week the agency plans to install three more bins in Terminal C and Delta Air Lines' Terminal A. Terminal B's checkpoints are all slated to have bins by mid-October.
Like a mailbox, the bins open only for people to drop items in. Malui also designed them with wheels so that they can be kept behind locked doors overnight.
Only a handful of other US airports, including those serving Pittsburgh, West Palm Beach, Fla., and Juneau, Alaska, have installed similar bins.
George N. Naccara, the TSA's Logan-based federal security director overseeing airports throughout the Northeast, said based on how well the bins work out at Logan and elsewhere, they could become standard features of US airports in coming years.
The TSA lists more than 60 items that are banned from planes, including axes, cattle prods, corkscrews, hockey sticks, and power saws, as well as conventional weapons. The list is on the TSA's website, www.tsa.gov, and brochures at many airport ticket counters and travel agencies. The terrorists who seized two planes flying from Logan to level New York's World Trade Center are thought to have used box cutters to overpower the flight crew. (At the time box cutters were not banned in carry-on luggage.)
The TSA also gives screeners leeway to reject other items not on the government list. Still officials are stumped by what travelers evidently think is acceptable. Some passengers have tried to carry on hand-grenade-shaped perfume containers and cigarette lighters shaped like handguns, while another recently attempted to bring aboard a fully-fueled chain saw.
"It never ceases to amaze me," Naccara said.
Logan officials believe that carelessness, not bad intentions, is what explains rampant flouting of the rules.
"I'm sure that 99-point-x percent of the time, it's inadvertent," said Craig P. Coy, executive director of the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan.
Some travelers interviewed about the amnesty bins said anything that can help avoid time-consuming disputes and backups at security lines is welcome. But Arnold Rots, a Harvard University astrophysicist who flies frequently, said he couldn't understand what he described as seemingly arbitrary rules. For example, pool cues are banned but canes are not; nail files are allowed but not knives of similar size.
"The system is designed to be a nuisance to honest people in an attempt to convince them that they are safe," Rots said, "while a determined terrorist can get through with deadly weapons."
So what does Logan do with all its carry-on contraband? The TSA uses two organizations to haul out the items: The state of New Hampshire surplus property division takes resaleable items like jackknifes, scissors, and tools, while Clean Harbors Inc., a Braintree toxic-waste-handling firm, picks up lighters, pepper spray, and dangerous liquids like paint or solvents, to safely dispose of them.