WASHINGTON — Screeners at the nation's airport checkpoints don't take tips. But they will definitely keep the change.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has collected — and kept — more than $1 million in the past three years from airline passengers who forget coins at checkpoints. Passengers must take change out of their pockets and drop it in plastic bins that go through X-ray machines, but tens of thousands of people each year forget to reclaim it.
The TSA has been keeping change since October 2004, when it lobbied Congress to amend federal law and let the agency use the money to defray security costs. Previously, money left at checkpoints went to a general fund in the federal treasury.
*The cash leader: Los Angeles International Airport, where passengers left $89,375 from Sept. 30, 2004 to Oct. 1, 2007, according to TSA reports. Las Vegas' McCarran International was a distant runner-up.
*The cash laggard: Chattanooga (Tenn.) Metropolitan Airport, whose 300,000 departing passengers in 2007 left just $1.20.
*The big surprise: New York's Kennedy International Airport, the nation's sixth-busiest, which generated just $5,228 from 2004 to 2007, including a mere $607 last year.
Coins are left by passengers who are either too rushed to bother collecting their change or too color-blind to see it, the TSA says.
"The money blends in with a lot of the gray bins we're utilizing," said Earl Morris, TSA security chief at Salt Lake City International Airport, which collected $6,317 from 2004 to 2007.
A lot of money is abandoned by travelers heading overseas who realize US currency "isn't worth anything to them," said Don Thomas, a screener and screeners' union official at Orlando International Airport, where the TSA has collected $16,885.
Travelers also forget small belongings such as pens, earrings and pocket knives — "but they come back and get the cellphones," Thomas said. Non-cash items are given to state agencies, which donate or sell them.
The $1.05 million in cash collected between 2005 and 2007 is a tiny fraction of the $18 billion the TSA spent in those years. And it amounts to about $2 a day at each of 450 commercial airports.
The TSA takes the coins seriously, equipping each of its 800 airport checkpoints with a locked container for screeners to deposit cash. Checkpoint managers store the cash each day in an airport safe. Large airports deposit the cash into a local bank every 90 days, or when the amount in the safe reaches $300.
The TSA has fired screeners for keeping change, including one "terminated for theft of a nickel and two pennies," TSA spokeswoman Sterling Payne said. "TSA takes the handling of any passenger items, whether left voluntarily or involuntarily, very seriously."