TSA Sells Items Abandoned at Baggage Checks

Claude Misher plunks a set of studded spurs, a police-issue baton, an old-fashioned wood planer and an unexploded artillery shell down on his desk at the Maryland State Agency for Surplus Property (search).

The odd assortment of items has one thing in common: All were "voluntarily abandoned" at airline security checkpoints (search) by travelers trying to get on a plane, and were then turned over to the state for disposal.

Despite assurances by the Transportation Security Administration (search) that it is "always trying to educate the public" about what can and cannot be carried on to flights, the boxes keep coming to Misher's warehouse, hundreds of pounds of items every few months.

The vast majority of abandoned items are mundane things like scissors, nail files and letter openers. But TSA officials said they still find people carelessly carrying guns -- or more exotic items like those in Jessup.

"Unfortunately in this day and age, people have new responsibilities," said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association (search). "Sometimes people get a little too comfortable and relaxed."

That could explain the fierce-looking pistol with an array of tubes and nozzles inside a display case at the front of the state surplus warehouse: It is a semiautomatic paintball (search) gun that someone tried to bring on board a plane.

Like almost everything else abandoned at airport checkpoints, the paintball gun is now for sale at the warehouse, priced at $60.

TSA says that prohibited items are never confiscated from airline passengers, but are voluntarily abandoned by people at airport security. Dangerous or illegal items are handed over to law enforcement authorities, but the rest are turned over to various state surplus agencies.

In Maryland, that is the Department of General Services, which handles all of the security checkpoint detritus from Baltimore/Washington International Airport, as well as from Pittsburgh International Airport and Long Island Macarthur Airport in New York.

Pickups are made at the airports every three to four months. Staffers at the warehouse sort through the material and remove anything illegal or dangerous that may have slipped through, or anything that can be sold individually. The rest is separated into 50-pound boxes that are sold to the public for $50 each.

The boxes of prohibited items sell out "like hotcakes," said Gary Gray, a manager at the surplus warehouse. They are so popular that Gray said the warehouse has had to impose a limit of five boxes per customer per day.

Gray said the surplus warehouse's last shipment from BWI weighed in at 600 pounds, and all 12 boxes were sold within a day.

"It doesn't last," said Misher, who is director of the Maryland surplus property agency.

He said that most of the box buyers separate out the contents and sell the pieces at flea markets or other venues. Some buyers have told him they use the proceeds to buy uniforms or sports gear for local schools.

After 9/11, there was a sharp increase in the amount of materials that people left at checkpoints, Misher said.

Nationwide, more than 7 million items were voluntarily abandoned at airport security checkpoints in 2004, and more than 17 million have been abandoned since a new prohibited-items list was introduced after 9/11, according to TSA officials.

TSA does not have any means of returning abandoned property to passengers. Once it has been left at checkpoint, it is gone, said Amy Von Walter, a TSA spokeswoman.

The staff at the surplus warehouse will occasionally try to return an item to its owner, but since few items can be definitively connected to a passenger, few ever make it back.

But Stempler said passengers should not expect to get prohibited items back, saying it would create an enormous administrative burden on security officials who have more important things to worry about.

And Stempler said he is not as worried about the array of contraband as he is about the people who absent-mindedly walk on to a plane carrying the items.

"I'm more nervous about what people are carrying around on the street," he said.

Capital News Service contributed to this report.