Shopping for a Rolling Pin, Scissors or a Bat? This Auction Is for You
Warehouses Sell Confiscated TSA Items; Good News for Snow Globe Owners
AUSTIN, Texas—Summer travelers, beware: For now, the snow globe you buy at the Alamo or at SeaWorld in San Antonio will be confiscated at the airport if you try to carry it on a plane. Even a Disney snow globe bought at the Orlando airport won't make it past airport security.
Every day an astonishing number of travelers forget the gun or knife in their pocket or carry-on bag. Many others fail to know that the child's souvenir from Walt Disney World is regulated as a potential airplane threat.These confiscated souvenirs, along with truckloads of pocket knives, tools, cake knives and workout weights—added to items like jewelry and belts left behind by rushing travelers—end up in online auctions or in stores selling the bounty of Transportation Security Administration checkpoint searches. (click below to read more)
A store here, in a remote industrial area not far from the airport, has two big shelves of seized snow globes, all nabbed as potential liquid explosives and now bargain-priced at just $2. The state agency that runs the store also sells government surplus like file cabinets and firetrucks from the summer-hot warehouse. But its storefront is filled with TSA loot: knives, power tools, baseball bats, sunglasses and jewelry.
Here you will find belts for $5. Swiss Army knives are sold by the pound. Corkscrews and nail clippers are all 10 cents each, scissors are $3 a pair. Every Friday, there is an auction of collectible knives.
The TSA sends truckloads of prohibited and left-behind items to state-run agencies set up to sell surplus government equipment. Many states take the best and auction it off on eBay or GovDeals.com, a site that sells surplus government property online. Among the Pennsylvania offerings this month on GovDeals.com: three pounds of "assorted gold-toned jewelry,'' not tested for quality, that sold for $6,885.
Some states stock stores with potential weapons like box cutters, machetes and hunting knives. But much of the material is seemingly harmless—items caught in the web of TSA rules and overly aggressive screeners who collect items currently legal aboard planes, like nail clippers.
Store shelves have rounded cake knives, rolling pins and lots of small hand-held exercise weights—items TSA considers dangerous (weights could be used to bludgeon, for example). Baseball bats are banned, but plastic Wiffle-ball bats are OK. So are toy guns if they don't look "realistic.'' But both plastic bats and toy guns are for sale at surplus stores, either because they have been left behind by kids or because they were taken away by officers."A lot of kids are going home without their souvenirs,'' said Shane Bailey, director of Alabama's surplus property program, which sells TSA items from Alabama and Florida and uses inmate labor to sort all the knives, tools and trinkets. Toys, he said, get donated to local youth shelters.
But snow-globe glasnost is coming. Christopher L. McLaughlin, TSA's assistant administrator for security operations, said the agency recently decided to allow snow globes roughly the size of tennis balls that can fit in a traveler's permissible, quart-size bag of liquids. Screeners are being trained on the rule change, which should take effect next month, he said.
Mr. McLaughlin said no count is taken of the material collected at checkpoints. Many travelers don't fly frequently, don't pay attention to the TSA rules or simply forget. In addition, some people just try to get away with it, figuring TSA screening is porous.
"We put guidelines in place, but at the end of the day it comes down to the discretion of officers making decisions in real time,'' said Mr. McLaughlin.
Guns are turned over to law-enforcement agencies—last year TSA intercepted more than 1,300 firearms at checkpoints. Liquids and gels get thrown away. But with prohibited items, travelers have choices—return it to a car, put it in checked baggage, mail it home or just leave it with TSA. Stuff left behind is, by law, donated to states.
The loot often suggests tales of travel anxiety and TSA confrontation. Was a flier unhappy at leaving behind a "World's Greatest Dad'' coffee mug, now for sale for $1 in Austin? How many visitors to Kentucky were miffed when their Louisville Slugger miniature souvenir bats were confiscated at the Louisville airport? Was there a romantic story behind a pair of 18-carat gold Tiffany earrings that Texas sold for $800?
Valuables go quickly, states say. In Texas, regulars come by the store that sells TSA items and check with employees on shipment schedules to get first crack at top-brand sunglasses and fine watches.
"We don't advertise or post online. It's just word-of-mouth,'' said Lisa Hardin, surplus property program specialist for the Texas Facilities Commission.
In the first five months of this year, Texas collected about $259,000 at its storefront, most of it from selling TSA-donated items. Pennsylvania, which auctions off property from airports in six mid-Atlantic states including New York, says it has put $700,000 in the state treasury since 2004 from TSA sales.
Alabama says it clears only about $20,000 a year after expenses. In Sacramento, Calif., the last quarterly live auction of TSA-donated property brought in $13,000.
Karen Johnson of Austin brings her two sons to shop each summer. Last year Chase, 10 years old, got a slingshot; this year a Nerf gun that shoots foam darts. They also got outfitted with pocket knives.
"If you think about the things that get confiscated, it's boy stuff,'' she said.
Mike Basara comes to the Austin store almost every day on the way home from his hospital maintenance job. He looks for items he can sell on the Internet or to friends and co-workers. His best find: A knife he paid $20 for and resold for $100. "It's the hunt I like,'' Mr. Basara said.
State surplus property managers say the best thing travelers can do is label their valuables with contact information. They do try to return items to owners. Pennsylvania returned a wedding ring to a man, using an expired AAA membership card attached to a key ring found with the wedding band.
"We probably saved this gentlemen a lot of grief with this wife,'' said Troy Thompson, spokesman for the Department of General Services.