It was a simpler time, before 2001, before the TSA, when airline travelers could bring basically anything through airport security with little to no scrutiny. Over 14 years later, the memories of those times have all but faded out completely, replaced instead by media-hyped, airport security fear-mongering, and the incessant reminders to "please remove your shoes, belts and pacemakers," before we are granted permission to shuffle through the security checkpoint in a boredom-induced malaise.
Despite the blatantly advertised changes to security screening protocols over the last 14 years - effectively banning the carry-on of any item with the potential to serve as a weapon - bold, or sometimes ignorant, travelers are still trying to bring contraband through airport security checkpoints, only to have it confiscated and subsequently lost in an ever-growing, prohibited-items purgatory. In fact the TSA now confiscates enough contraband to necessitate running a blog dedicated entirely to cataloging their loot each week.
Destination Unknown: Where'd My Stuff Go?
One fairly common misconception regarding the TSA's "confiscation" of prohibited carry-on items, is that they are taken against the passenger's will. Technically, the passenger "surrenders" prohibited items, though they are given a number of choices beforehand to prevent having to surrender their banned goods, including: returning to the ticketing counter and checking their items to the final destination, taking items back to their car before departing, or mailing items to the traveler's final destination.
Traveling can be hectic, and people are forgetful, the sum of which leads to a lost and found office packed to the brim with odds and ends which range from dangerous to somewhat necessary - cell phones, shoes, belts, keys...you get the point. But those items have been forgotten, not prohibitively removed.
Prohibited (and subsequently confiscated) materials are lumped into one of several categories, which then determine how they're processed, and where they go. Liquids, toiletries, and various other items of little to no value are thrown into the trash straight-away, whereas guns and illicit substances are handed over to the local police. The bulk of the confiscated items fall into neither of the above listed categories, and instead are taken by a "property custodian," whose day consists of traveling back and forth to various checkpoints within airport terminals, and collecting the various confiscated carry-ons - commonly in excess of 100 pounds per day.
One Man's Trash
At this point we can conclude the following: Confiscated guns and illicit substances are turned over to authorities, and cellphones, wallets, keys, and the like are turned over to the lost and found in hopes of returning them to their owners, but what happens to the rest of the stuff?
Once gathered, all contraband is usually housed in an on-site storage facility, where TSA custodians separate the items into two groups - to be destroyed safely, and to be sent off-site. Liquids and aerosols are disposed of on-site, but the rest of the confiscated items are organized and shipped off to TSA agency offices around the country where they are eventually sold back to the public at bargain-bin prices.
Some of the TSA's collected contraband is sold online, in-bulk by the pound, such as a mixed bag of pocketknives, or phone-chargers. The rest is shuttled away to TSA thrift stores to be sold, with the proceeds going to the state.
Another Man's TSA Thrift Store Treasure-Hunt
Walk into any one of the TSA thrift stores scattered throughout the United States, and you're sure to be taken-aback by not only the voluminous selection of goods for sale, but also the staggeringly comprehensive collection of nearly anything you could ever imagine. The vast assortment of confiscated items has drawn many people to agency-sponsored surplus stores on a regular basis, hunting for rare finds to hopefully turn a profit when resold on the internet or local pawn broker. From fishing rods and pocketknives, to cell-phone chargers and laptop batteries, the TSA has got it all - and the prices are next to nothing, for example, this 17-inch computer monitor sold for a mere $10!
Traveling Smart: How to Prevent Surrendering your Prohibited Valuables
Beyond relying solely on the lost-and-found departments to return your surrendered valuables, a number of preemptive means can be taken to ensure a smooth TSA checkpoint experience. The most important, and easily the most obvious measure (though it's commonly overlooked or forgotten), is to label all luggage and valuables with you contact information. Despite the all too common feeling expressed by travelers that airport security protocols are largely symbolic and end up wasting a great deal of time for passengers, the TSA exerts a great deal of time and care in returning lost valuables to their rightful owners, and there is a good chance that something as simple as the addition of contact information to your baggage will greatly increase the chances of being reunited with your lost valuables. Case in point: The TSA was able to return a lost wedding ring to a man in Pennsylvania by discovering it next to his expired AAA card, and forwarding the ring to the listed address.
Next time you find yourself planning a vacation overseas, check out your local TSA surplus thrift store before you depart - you might just find the perfect travel accessory, for a fraction of its retail cost.
Show Me the Loot!