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$321,329.48 of spare change

Harried flyers are leaving thousands of dollars behind at airport security check points.  The money is tediously collected, cataloged and then desposited in the Treasury's general fund.
Passengers, made to remove all objects from clothing pockets, are leaving behind thousands of dollars as they scramble to make flights.Larry Downing / Reuters file
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It’s a familiar drill to anyone that flies.  Step up to a security check point and remove everything from your pockets; keys, coins, cell phones, PDAs, whatever, they all go into little plastic trays to be screened.

But everything that goes into the trays doesn’t always come out, particularly spare change.  Harried and hassled travelers, intent on picking up major items, such as laptop computers, are increasingly leaving behind their pocket change, according security officials from the Transportation Security Administration, the office that oversees passenger screeners.

In fact passengers left behind a total of $321,329.48, down to the penny, during a one-year period going back to October of last year, according to Amy von Walter, a TSA spokeswoman.  Airports have collected $244,024.50 since January 1st of this year alone, von Walter said.

“The airports are responsible for collecting that money at each of the individual TSA locations,” Von Walter said. 

The nation’s 429 commercial airports collect any money left behind at a screening checkpoint and deposits it into the general fund of the U.S. Treasury Department.  The general fund pays for everything from light bulbs in the White House to Medicare to payments on the public debt. 

The timetable for making deposits varies by airport.  “Certainly some of the smaller airports aren’t going to need to send in a [a deposit] every month,” von Walter said.  The frequency of deposit “is really based on volume,” she said.

At Los Angeles International Airport a tall green safe holds mostly American coins and currency but TSA screeners there collect a fair amount of foreign money, too.  At LAX there are nine terminals and money left behind by passengers at those check points topped $12,000 in the last fiscal year.

“There’s no reason to the madness,” Suzan Robinson, a TSA administration financial specialist who runs the agency’s LAX collection program told the Associated Press. “It just varies.”

Any foreign currency collected is exchanged into dollars and deposited in the general fund as well, said von Walter.  The same goes for any casino chips left behind.  “We count everything,” von Walter said.

In the post 9/11 world of air travel just getting through an airport’s security screening process can be a stressful experience.  It’s no wonder that passengers aren’t going to be concerned about a few coins left behind.

“Cell phone, keys, wallet, sure, for those things I’d go back for in a minute,” said Mark D, an engineer from Virginia traveling through Dulles International recently, who requested his last name not be used.  “But there’s no way I’m risking making a flight to go back for 37 cents.”

But what happens if a passenger does come back to a security checkpoint claiming a forgotten $1.53 in spare change?

“We will certainly provide the change or whatever item they left behind,” von Walter said.  “It’s like any kind of lost and found situation, certainly if it’s something of value we want to make sure that they have information that would confirm it is indeed their property.”

Bigger, bulkier items left behind, such as car seats or coats or confiscated items, such as pocket knives are either destroyed, donated to charity or, in some enterprising states, sold for cash.

California’s Department of General Services has taken to selling items on eBay while other airports simply send confiscated items to metal grinders.  Some states, like Kentucky, obtain items confiscated at airport checkpoints from other states.  Kentucky’s Division of Surplus Property then auctions a lot of those items on eBay but also sells to select groups such as the Boy Scouts, police and firefighters.