TSA security checkpoint

TSA takes on Star Wars, pups and checkpoint firearms.

Today’s tidbits come from some of the social media notices shared by the folks at Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

First: On its @askTSA site, TSA is answering questions from Star Wars fans heading to a Disney park to visit the Galaxy’s Edge attraction.

People are curious about how TSA will deal wtih some of the out-of-this-world souvenirs, like “thermal detonator” coke bottle souvenirs.

TSA says don’t try putting these ‘thermal detonator’ soda bottle souvenirs in carry-on luggage. Athough they’re filled with soda, they look like something else.

And that’s why they say those items should be put in checked bags.

TSA also shared the winner of its National Dog Day Cutest K9 contest. Congrats to Alfie!

And, as it does most every week, TSA reported the number of firearms found in carry-on bags at airport checkpoints in the previous week.

Between August 19 and 25, TSA officers found 69 firearms in carry-on bags.

That tally is actually on the low end.

But, of the 69 firearms discovered in carry-on bags last week, 59 were loaded and 23 had a round chambered.

Travel Tune-up: “Ask TSA” offers answers.

Want to avoid the TSA tangle? Just ask.

Bowling balls? Yes, you can take them as carry-on

Our column this week for CNBC tackled the TSA experience and offered tips on what you may – and may not – pack in your carry-on. Here’s the story.

Last week, the Transportation Security Administration shared a photo on social media of a missile launcher found in a passenger’s checked bag.

“Man said he was bringing it back from Kuwait as a souvenir,” said TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein on Twitter, “Perhaps he should have picked up a keychain instead!”

As a division of the Department of Homeland Security, TSA is responsible for overseeing security at the nation’s airports. But weighing in on the pros and cons of travel souvenirs and answering questions about what items are permitted on airplanes has become part of the job.

“We get a lot of questions about what people can take through the checkpoints,” said Janis Burl, the @AskTSA manager. “A lot are about food – i.e. ‘Can I take a sandwich?’ [Answer: yes] And over the past few months we’ve gotten a lot of questions about that’s kid toy slime.” [Also yes, but only if the slime is 3.4 ounces or less and is carried with a travelers’ liquids and lotions in the allowed one-quart zip bag.]

On its website – under the header “What Can I Bring?”, and on its app, TSA has an extensive catalog of things travelers may or may not pack in their carry-on or checked bags. Items are listed alphabetically and by category and the list can be searched.

Under “Toys” there are seven examples and TSA notes that while fidget spinners and remote controlled cars are allowed in carry-on luggage, realistic replicas of firearms and explosives are not. The TSA directory also has a helpful note about adult toys (ahem), which are allowed in both carry-on and check bags.

What about toy lightsabers, including those purchased or custom built (to the tune of $200) at Disney’s new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge attraction?

TSA’s “What Can I Bring?” database says “Sadly the technology doesn’t currently exist to create a real lightsaber. However, you can pack a toy lightsaber in your carry-on or checked bag,” and adds, “May the force be with you.”

With summer travel in full-swing, it’s good to know ahead of time that tent spikes or poles, strike anywhere matches, spear guns, pool cues, Magic 8 Balls, firecrackers, bear spray, baseball bats and bowling pins are not allowed as carry-on items, but that bowling balls are allowed. 

Also allowed as carry-on: compasses, amethyst crystals, fresh fruit, fishing rods, live lobsters (in a clear, plastic, spill proof container), seashells, fruit gummies, cooked lasagna, jelly beans, electronic bathroom scales and frozen water bottles, as long as the water is completely frozen when presented for screening.

And while the Federal Aviation Administration is emphatic that drones not be flown near airports, TSA allows drones in carry-on bags. However, the agency encourages travelers to check with their airline about specific rules for taking drones on board.

For items not found in TSA’s database, and for travelers who want to make sure a specific item will fly, there is a team of ten full-time TSA employees who monitor and respond to questions sent in via Twitter (@AskTSA) and Facebook Messenger.

Team members are on duty 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. (ET) weekdays, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekends and holidays, (including Christmas) and are quick to respond to all manner of “Can I bring?” questions sent in.

One passenger recently asked about traveling with jars of pickles. They were advised that pickles without liquid in a zip bag were good to go as carry-on, but that pickles with pickle juice were only allowed in a carry-on bag if packed in a container of 3.4 oz. or less.

Another passenger wrote to @AskTSA inquiring about traveling with a whole cantaloupe she’d grown in her garden.

“I want to take it to my mom,” the traveler tweeted to TSA. “You can,” TSA responded, adding “We hope your mom enjoys the treat!”

Other recent questions have covered verything from quesadillas to roach bait. And Burl says, when in doubt, sending along a photo is always helpful.

It may seem as if the “AskTSA” team has likely seen it all by now, but Burl says they sometimes gets stumped.

“If you send in a photo and we don’t know what it is, we’ll go to Google to figure it out.”

And while the @AskTSA team uses its knowledge, TSA’s database and, sometimes, a bit of Googling, to give travelers a thumbs up or down on traveling with certain items in carry-on or checked bags, Burl says the final say-so on any whether an items is a ‘go’ rests with the Transportation Security Officer (TSO) on duty at the checkpoint.

“If they’re looking at something that doesn’t look right, they can make that decision,” said Burl.

In addition to its website, Twitter and Facebook accounts, TSA also has a very popular and informative Instagram account that can help travelers learn about what can fly.

A recent post, in honor of National Kitten Day, for example, noted that kittens, catnip and balls of yarn are good to go through security checkpoints, but warned that cats (and other pets) must be removed from their carrier while the carrier goes on the X-ray belt for screening.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

TSA also produces occasional quirky-but-entertaining and educational “They brought what? videos.

Passengers left TSA a ‘tip’ of almost $1 million in 2018

In 2018, travelers left TSA almost $1 million in inadvertent “tips”

Passengers in a rush to get through the airport security checkpoint often leave behind belts, mobile phones, laptops and other valuable items.

They also leave lots of coin and cash.

According to a report due out today from the Transportation Security Administration, during FY 2018 travelers left for than $960,000 – ($960, 105.49 to be exact) – in the plastic bins at airport checkpoints around the country.

That’s $90,265.93 more than the $869,839.56 travelers left behind as inadvertent ‘tips’ for TSA in FY 2017.

It is $92, 293.10 more than the $867, 812.39 passengers forgot to pick up in FY 2016.

And it’s a whopping, $194,346.34 more than passengers left behind in FY 2015.

By law, TSA is allowed to use these funds for projects it considers important for civil aviation security.

In past years some of the left-behind funds have been used to promote and improve the TSA Pre-Check program, for checkpoint maintenance, and for translation of checkpoint signage into different foreign languages.

Much of unclaimed money from the past few years remains in TSA’s coffers. In fact, as of March 15, 2019, when TSA actually completed its report, NO funds from 2017 had been expended.

And that funds are now included in the list of funds the Department of Homeland Security has its eyes on to help fund border operations, NBC recently reported. (Although the law specificially says the funds are to be used for civil aviation protection.)

Who are the biggest tippers?

As you might suspect, some of the county’s largest airports collect the most unclaimed coins and cash at the security checkpoints. 

TSA’s Unclaimed Money at Airports report for FY 2018 shows that passengers at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK) left behind the most money: $72, 392.74.

Next on the list: Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), where $71,748.83 was unclaimed in the bins.

Miami, Chicago O’Hare and Newark Liberty International are in the Top 5 of airports where passengers leave behind the most coins and cash.

Here’s the Top Ten list:

1.       JFK         72,392.74

2.       LAX        71,748.83

3.       MIA       50,504.49

4.       ORD       49,597.23

5.       EWR       41,026.07

6.       DFW      36,707.99

7.       SFO        33,264.80

8.       LAS         33,038.23

9.       MCO      32,687.10

10.     IAD         31,090.38

Why would travelers leave so much money behind at checkpoints? And why does the tally just keep going up? 

According to TSA spokesperson Jenny Burke, one reason may be that more people are traveling. Many airports are serving a record number of passengers and TSA is, therefore, screening a record number of passengers.

That makes the pool of possible inadvertent “tippers” much bigger.

Another reason: In this age of credit and debit card transactions, travelers find it more valuable to spend their time getting to their gate than stopping to scoop up a few pennies or dimes.

(A slightly different version of my story about TSA’s report on unclaimed money from FY 2018 first appeared on USA TODAY. )