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.
One man even mailed an 18th-century sewing kit encased in ivory, valued at $3,000.
Although Lowry says the future looks strong, competition is growing fierce.
Rival ReturnKey Systems is expanding, too, and the two companies now often go head-to-head in vying for airport contracts. Each says it has been contacted by dozens of airports since the TSA announced in February that it would ban all lighters.
Steve Kranyec, founder of ReturnKey, says his company has the edge. His bins are heavily computerized, allowing customers to type in their information. To guard against terrorism, computers verify shipping addresses, check that the item can be shipped, and snap digital photos of customers.
"Although she has a viable service, I think we blow it away with the technology," Kranyec says. The technology once prevented a man from mailing a chain saw, for instance, he added.
An upcoming joint venture with Smarte Carte, the baggage cart company, will allow ReturnKey easier access into more airports, he said.
Lowry, though, says she doesn't fear the competition. She declines to release financial information about the privately held company, but says it is profitable and will soon begin seeking a new round of outside investment.
"As long as security is an issue at the airport, we'll be around," she said. "It's only going to get bigger and bigger."