WASHINGTON – Susan Brown Campbell doesn’t consider herself a threat to the friendly skies. But a steak knife mistakenly left in her shoulder bag before a July flight from Baltimore thrust her in the position of defending herself to federal security officials — and slapped with a $300 fine.
“What value is served by punishing people who unintentionally brought in something that could inadvertently be used as a weapon? I’m no threat to the government,” said Campbell, the deputy director of the National Immigration Law Center (search), who was flying home to Los Angeles following a business trip.
She said the steak knife, used for a lunch of apples and cheese, was confiscated with no further incident at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport (search). She was surprised to receive a notice with the $300 fine in the mail weeks later because she was unaware there were penalties for what she had done.
When she wanted a hearing near her home to appeal the ticket, Campbell said conversations with government representatives were unnerving.
“The worst part was the attitude of the government officials,” she told Foxnews.com. “They scared and bullied me. I swore I would fight it, but I knuckled under at the last minute and paid it.”
In response, Transportation Security Administration (search) officials say Campbell was carrying a four-inch blade through an airport terminal that clearly warned passengers that such items were prohibited.
As for the request for a hearing in Los Angeles, TSA officials said the fines are handled much the way speeding tickets are — within the jurisdiction they are issued. Campbell believes TSA denied her request because she was being persistent with her appeal.
"This couldn't be what the government intended," she said.
Nevertheless, TSA officials say they stand behind a recently released set of guidelines for assessing fines on airline passengers who violate security policies. They are part of a tough multi-layered approach to defending airports and planes from any potential terrorist threat in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“The civil penalties really help TSA to ensure that individuals traveling with dangerous items think twice before approaching the security checkpoint,” said Yolanda Clark (search), spokeswoman for the TSA. “We are committed to keeping air travelers safe.”
But critics — who include former U.S Rep. Bob Barr (search), R-Ga., say the government is wrongly treating all travelers like criminals, and spending tax dollars on a security measure that does little to target real terrorists.
“Law-abiding citizens are being made to feel like criminals,” he said. “None of this is going to stop terrorists from doing what they want to do.”
Among the violations and the maximum fines:
— An airport that fails to provide evidence it is complying, $25,000.
— Pilots who fail to comply with security rules, $10,000.
— Travelers who try to bring explosives on a plane, $10,000.
— Travelers who interfere with security procedures, $6,000.
— Items like baseball bats, fireworks and sharp objects that could be used as weapons carry fines anywhere from $300 to $1,500 depending on the circumstances.
According to Clark, more than 10 million prohibitive items, including guns, fireworks, knives and box-cutters, have been captured during screening at U.S airports since Sept. 11, 2001. Between Aug. 2003 and Jan. 2004, only 37 fines over $1,000 were issued, and those were for firearms, said Clark. In the same period, a total of $144,830 was assessed to violators, with an average fine of $210.
Screeners report violations to federal security directors assigned to each airport. These directors assess the fine according to the guidelines, which also allow directors to consider aggravating or mitigating factors, like whether the passenger tried to “artfully conceal” the item, or had interfered with the screening process.
They can also consider the “attitude” of the passenger, whether he or she is a juvenile or an “inexperienced flier,” who may not have known better.
Barr said this has resulted in arbitrary punishment and inconsistent application of the law.
“It’s arbitrary power that should never be tolerated in our society,” he said, speculating that the TSA was using the regulations to raise revenues, and “to simply flex its muscles and let people know it’s in charge.”
Chuck Pena, a senior defense policy analyst for the Cato Institute (search), described the fines and the TSA's approach as "another example of Homeland Security running amok."
“If people make an honest mistake and people are going to make honest mistakes with these various prohibitive items, fining them and extracting penalties because of their attitude is not going to do anything to prevent terrorists," Pena said.
Rep. Peter Defazio (search), D-Ore., ranking member of the aviation subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, had similar concerns. But Defazio was satisfied after he had recent conversations with TSA officials that the penalties would be levied fairly, said his spokesman, Kristie Greco.
“He would like the rules to be fairly applied, even and clear,” and with due process, Greco said. “I believe he was reassured.”
Industry-watchers say the TSA has not done a good job of letting people know that these fines actually exist, much less issuing clear directives on what is or what is not allowed on a plane these days. While the guidelines and security policies are available on the TSA Web site, critics say that isn’t enough.
“People don’t know what to bring or what not to bring,” said Eric Grasser, editor of the Air Security Report (search), which tracks policy, as well as daily airport security breaches.
He said there are at least two arrests a day for people trying to take handguns onto planes and numerous cases of people caught with prohibited items, but most of the cases are mistakes.
“I guess to TSA’s credit, they felt that this [new sanctions] would solve some of that, but a lot of people in the industry say they haven’t had an effective education program to inform people,” said Grasser.
Clark, the TSA spokesman, disagrees.
“We have aggressively worked to educate passengers,” through media campaigns and by working with individual airports and airlines to get the message out. “We want passengers to get to their destinations without incident. I would say we’ve done a good job and we continue to do it," Clark said.
But Campbell says her experience left her with a bad taste for flying, and for the government. She still doesn’t know how the ticket, sent to her home weeks after the knife was confiscated at the airport, is supposed to deter terrorists.
“Surely they could find a better way to spend our money," Campbell said.