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In the land of contraband

It has happened to all of us. One forgetful day, we arrived at the head of the airport security line, only to have some contraband item confiscated by the TSA agent. Hand creams, cigarette lighters, embroidery scissors, grenade launchers, bottles of scotch and perfume - where do all those prohibited items go? James Wysong investigates.
Dulles Airport Helps Travellers Navigate Security Checkpoints
Ever wonder where all those cigarette lighters go when confiscated by airport screeners? Alex Wong / Getty Images file

Here are a couple of airport scenarios that most air travelers will recognize:

  • You go through security and in your carry-on luggage, the baggage screener finds a pocket knife, four ounces of shampoo, a cigarette lighter or some other item that is not permitted aboard the airplane. You have already spent a frustrating hour in line, so you decide to let the agent just take the prohibited item away.
  • You buy a bottle of Scotch whiskey or French perfume at the duty-free shop abroad, but when you land in the U.S., you have to go through security for your connecting flight home. That's when you discover you can't take the whiskey or perfume onboard the airplane. Sadly, you wave your lovely stuff goodbye.

Annoying? Yes. But puzzling, too. I mean, where does all that contraband go? The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) must confiscate thousands of prohibited items every day. Do the agents get to keep the stuff? Do they sell it? Give it charity? Throw it away? I once counted 12 bottles of booze and nine oversized parcels of expensive aftershave and perfume at a security checkpoint — all confiscated from an international flight. I imagined the nice-smelling party that was going to happen at the end of the shift.

Not so far-fetched, maybe. I have a gate agent friend who once was in charge of quizzing passengers about prohibited possessions before they boarded the aircraft. Almost everyone who had a lighter chose to relinquish it rather than take the time to send it home. My friend now has a collection of more than 600 lighters, ranging from the average Bic to some intricate and bizarre models. Ironically, my friend doesn't smoke — but what a collection.

Here are some tips for dealing with prohibited items.

1. Know the rules
Go to the TSA Web site to find out the latest on what can and cannot be carried in your carry-on luggage. Rules change quite often, so check it on a regular basis.

2. Ship it home
If you cannot take an item on board, you can always send it home. Most airports have vendors near the security checkpoint that sell mailing materials in different sizes and shapes, and the TSA is rolling out self-serve mailing kiosks in airports around the country.

3. Check it
If you buy a duty-free item abroad or on the airplane and you have to connect at an airport in the United States, you will have to take your luggage through customs. When you recheck your bags for your connecting flight, put any liquids or other prohibited items in your checked luggage because your next stop is the security checkpoint, and that's where your items will be confiscated.

4. Make inquiries
If you are unsure whether your purchase will be permitted in your carry-on luggage for the duration of your flight (including your U.S. connecting flights), ask the clerk at the duty-free shop or ask a flight attendant. They have come across your situation many times before.

5. If in doubt, leave it out
If you aren't sure whether you can carry an item aboard the airplane, don't bring it. Do you really need your pocket knife for this trip? And no, if you do insist on bringing it, you're not "standing on principle," you're just being stubborn.

6. Use common sense
Deep down you know what should be left at home. I know a man who was determined to bring his hand grenade trophy with him. He may have won an award for throwing accuracy, but his intelligence score plummeted on that one.

7. Let it go
If you have to surrender an item, chalk it up as a lesson for next time. Complaining will only delay you and those behind you in line. Once, a woman in front of me refused to surrender an $800 bottle of anti-wrinkle cream that she had bought in the onboard duty-free facility (apparently, it had real shavings of gold among the ingredients). The woman missed her connecting flight and was detained for interfering with airport authorities. In life we all have to live and learn. Besides learning not to argue with TSA agents, I hope she learned not to spend that much on cream again.

But back to the burning question: Where does all the stuff go? My curiosity got the best of me one day, so I asked a TSA agent. He told me that metal items are sent to a melting plant and pocket knives are usually donated to organizations like the Boy Scouts. As for the booze, it used to be thrown away at the end of the shift, but the cleaners were reportedly imbibing on the job, so the new procedure is to take the liquor to the supervisor's office for proper disposal.

Now, "proper disposal" could be taken several different ways. The day I saw 12 bottles of confiscated duty-free liquor set side, the haul included a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label, which retails for about $200 here in the States. Being a bit of a scotch drinker myself, I know of only one way to properly dispose of that brand, and it doesn't include pouring it out.

James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, please visit or .