What Happens to Travelers' Confiscated Items?

ByCatherine Valenti

Dec. 7, 2001 -- On a recent US Airways flight from New York's LaGuardia airport to Greensboro, N.C., one woman complained that security guards had taken a Calvin Klein pin from a hat she was carrying on board.

Much to the woman's chagrin, the security personnel did not give her any information about getting it back.

"That pin cost more than the hat," she said.

If you've flown since Sept. 11, you too have probably noticed that once-innocent items like hat pins, tweezers and nail clippers are being promptly snatched from your carry-on bags for fear that they could be used as weapons.

The bad news is, there is probably no hope of getting the items back. Security and airline sources say in most cases items confiscated at airports are destroyed at the end of the day.

Leave Your Weapons at Home

What's more, there's often very little recourse for travelers apart from simply filing a complaint with the airlines. And even then, many airlines won't be too sympathetic.

"We're not trying to be mean, we just have no choice," says Richard Weintraub, spokesman for US Airways. "It can get into logistical nightmares trying to mail everything back."

Some airlines, like United, are trying to accommodate passengers by providing a courtesy box at the gate where they can check the forbidden item and retrieve it at the end of the flight. Weapons like knives and mace, however, will be confiscated and destroyed, says a United spokesman.

And surprisingly, people still do try to bring potential weapons on flights. Among the more bizarre items officials at Argenbright Security, an Atlanta-based company that provides security for major airlines such as Delta and US Airways, have had to take include a saw and a sickle, which one passenger tried to carry on a flight in a garment bag, says company spokesman Brian Lott.

"It boggles the mind why someone would try and carry an item of that size, of that threat, on to the airplane," he says.

How to Find Out What Is Banned

US Airways' Weintraub says travelers can avoid these problems by learning more about what they are and are not allowed to carry on to a flight. The Federal Aviation Administration provides a listing of items that are not permitted on aircraft cabins on its Web site. These objects include knives of any length, corkscrews and hockey sticks.

But surprisingly, some of the things on the FAA's permitted list are precisely those objects that have been getting taken from passengers, including the aforementioned tweezers and nail clippers, as well as safety razors, syringes and eyelash curlers.

So why are these things still getting confiscated? Security industry officials say they'd rather err on the side of caution when it comes to any objects that could potentially be used as a weapon. Safety is taking precedence over the right to carry your tweezers on board.

"There are instances where there may not be things on that list that the security personnel will confiscate," says Argenbright's Lott, whose company has itself been under fire of late for security lapses.

An FAA spokeswoman added that airlines, which contract their own security service individually, have the option of confiscating any object not on the FAA's list that they deem potentially dangerous.

As for passengers getting their things back, "It really is incumbent on the carrier to provide a service for their customers and to present them with different options," says FAA spokeswoman Rebecca Trexler.

Some Not Bothered

Despite some uproar over the confiscations, other passengers say they don't mind having their things taken, and often it's a case of the travelers simply forgetting they had the item on them.

Jonathan Jou, a consultant for software company Sybase who travels frequently, recently had a penknife taken off of a key chain he had in the carry-on case of his laptop computer when he was flying out of Newark International Airport in New Jersey.

"There was a penknife that I had forgotten about and when they found it in my computer case, they just took it and there was no chance of ever returning it," he says. "I just said, 'No problem, just take it.' "