As she puts the key into a 750-pound concrete bin at Charlotte's airport, Heather Lowry is unlocking a mystery: What potential weapons have security screeners stopped today?
Leaning in, she pulls out the usual pocket knives and fingernail scissors. But this day, there are rarer items, too: a spike big enough for a railroad tie and a pair of billy clubs that could have come from a kung-fu movie set.
"Every time I come out here to pick up, I am astounded by what people bring," Lowry says.
She is president of Huntersville-based CheckPoint Mailers, which says it is the country's largest company that collects and mails banned items from airports. Rather than turn items over to security screeners, passengers can opt to deposit them in one of the company's bomb-resistant bins at a cost of $7 per item. Workers then collect the items and mail them back to the passenger.
Lowry expects a bump in business starting today, when the Transportation Security Administration starts enforcing a ban on lighters. She estimates they could eventually constitute a quarter of her business.
Formed two years ago, CheckPoint Mailers has bins in 20 airports. Charlotte was its first location, in 2003. A competitor, ReturnKey Systems of League City, Texas, is in five airports.
Both say they're growing rapidly. They seized an opportunity created when airport security tightened after 9-11. In addition, lower fares are drawing more leisure travelers to the skies -- people who are more likely to be unfamiliar with security regulations than seasoned business travelers.
Before today, the TSA banned only "torch" lighters -- those with big flames or intense heat. The new rules promise to nab hundreds of more ordinary lighters, such as Bics and Zippos. Bics typically cost just a couple of bucks, but Zippos sell for $10 to $40 or more, depending on engravings and design, and are often given as gifts or keepsakes.
Lowry, 40, says she and her business partner, Sherry Anderson, hatched the idea shortly after the terrorist attacks. The two met as reservations agents with US Air in Reno, Nev., in the 1980s and had the entrepreneurial bug.When they traveled, they'd see frustrated passengers forking over sentimental or valuable items to airport security.
"They'd say, 'Can't I mail this back?' And there was no way," Lowry says. "It was a simple thing to do."
They decided Lowry would handle marketing and legal issues, while Anderson would supervise operations and oversee the customer-service center in Kernersville, outside Greensboro.
They wrote a business plan, raised money and set to work winning approval from airports and the Transportation Security Administration.
Airport and TSA officials say passengers enjoy having the option to mail items back to themselves. CheckPoint Mailers gives airports 10 percent of revenues.
In Charlotte, the unmanned kiosks are located just inside security checkpoints. TSA agents supervise passengers while they deposit banned items. At other airports, the bins are located outside of checkpoints.
One afternoon last week, a man in a gold knit shirt quickly filled out his name and address on a slip, placed it in a clear plastic bag along with a pair of cuticle scissors, and put it into a bin by Charlotte's Concourse C.
"I wasn't thinking," the man said, before rushing to catch his flight. He asked that his name not be printed.
That experience, Lowry says, illustrates that the future is bright for her business. Even if travelers learn what they cannot carry aboard planes, many forget anyway. Pocket knives account for roughly 70 percent of the company's business, she says.
Five times in the past two years, Lowry herself has absent-mindedly tried to take sharp scissors through security, she says.
"I do this for a living, and I forget sometimes," she said.
With CheckPoint Mailers sending out roughly 8,000 items a month, Lowry has seen plenty of unusual items: Brass knuckles. Railroad spikes from railroad retirement parties. Spent shell casings from military funerals.
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