WASHINGTON – Starting Thursday, air travelers will have to leave their lighters at home. Unlike guns, knives and other dangerous items that a passenger cannot carry aboard but may stow in checked bags, lighters are banned everywhere on a plane.
The rule change is expected to produce a large number of seizures of lighters even though airports, airlines and the government have been telling travelers for the past 45 days about the impending ban.
"I'm sure we'll have a bunch of them," said George Doughty, executive director of Lehigh Valley International Airport in Allentown, Pa.
TSA (search) screeners already seize a half-million prohibited items every month. They've been more vigilant about finding and confiscating banned items than were the private screeners who worked at airports before the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings.
Lighters haven't been permitted in checked bags for at least 30 years because they might start fires in cargo holds. Congress passed a bill last year adding lighters to the list of items prohibited in the cabin.
The genesis for the ban was Richard Reid (search), who tried unsuccessfully to light explosives hidden in his shoes on a trans-Atlantic flight in 2001. He used matches.
The sponsors of the ban, Democratic Sens. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Ron Wyden of Oregon, worried that a lighter might have worked.
"This is a commonsense step to protect passengers in the face of a proven threat," Wyden said.
Mark Peterson, a Sioux Falls, S.D., appraiser who was grabbing a smoke outside Reagan Washington National Airport on Wednesday, wondered why it took so long.
"It's been 3 1/2 years since 9/11 and they've finally figured it out," Peterson said.
The ban does not include matches. Passengers still may carry aboard a plane up to four books of safety matches. Not allowed on planes are "strike anywhere" matches, which can be struck using any abrasive surface.
David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, said the lighter ban is long overdue. But he said matches ought to be included, too.
"The problem with the TSA on the matches is the inability to detect them," Stempler said.
Kevin Mitchell, president of the Business Travel Coalition, said the ban on lighters amounted to "silliness in the extreme."
"It only adds to consumer confusion and longer lines, and longer lines represent a security threat," Mitchell said.
Wehns Billen, visiting Washington from Micronesia for a conference, said he was told of the impending ban by his airline. He left his expensive lighter at home.
People can mail prohibited items, take them to their cars or give them to someone who is not traveling. Otherwise, seized items are not returned.
"The whole thing is silly," Billen said. "I wish they'd put a smoking section on the plane."
Billen may be typical of overseas travelers. They are more likely to smoke than U.S. citizens, said Steve van Beek, executive vice president of the Airports Council International, which represents airport officials.
"How are we going to notify every other passenger in the world connecting through and transiting the United States that their lighters are going to be seized?" van Beek said.