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Game of airport keepsake keep-away

Tens of thousands of sentimental keepsakes have been confiscated at airport security checkpoints in the aftermath of 9/11.  But you don't have to divorce yourself from a keepsake if you use one of the  mail-back programs at most airports today.
Many of these items, taken from passengers at Logan International Airport in Boston right after 9/11/01, such as the disposable lighters, corkscrews, plastic utensils and nail clippers are in fact allowed on airplanes today.Steven Senne / AP file
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Call it “keepsake keep-away,” the practice of airport passenger screeners’ confiscating boyhood pocketknives or grandma’s scissors from harried travelers who unwittingly try to carry such items through security checkpoints.

You’ve probably seen the anguished looks on faces of fellow travelers as they perform a kind of emotional triage, trading sentimental items — cherished memories — for the expediency of air travel.  It’s either give up the two-blade simulated deer horn Cub Scout knife you got when you were 9 or miss the 8:05 to Toledo.

It’s not always an easy choice.

Such scenes were made all too real in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as airport security tightened up so much that even tweezers weren’t allowed on board for a while. But even Transportation Security Administration passenger screeners have a heart.

“TSA staff, regardless of where they’re placed, they tend to understand your community and the things that are going on, and they understand the importance of a keepsake,” says Dave Osborn, director of transportation for Aberdeen, S.D.

Osborn speaks from personal experience. The Aberdeen Regional Airport, which he oversees, came to loggerheads with the TSA recently over a home-grown policy that allows travelers to rescue their keepsakes from the trash bin.

Aberdeen set up an “amnesty box” in January 2003. It allows travelers who inadvertently “step into line and have an item that’s not allowed on planes, such as a keepsake lighter that was given to them by their father or something like that, they are able to step back out of line, go deposit it in the amnesty box in an envelope with their name and address,” Osborn explained.  Airport staff then hold onto the item until the passenger returns to claim it.

Small catch: TSA apparently didn’t like the idea and asked the airport to discontinue the service, saying that it somehow impacted flight times. However, Aberdeen services only 50,000 travelers annually, Osborn said, and no one ever missed a flight because he or she used the amnesty box.

Osborn and airport board members objected to TSA’s request and to the agency’s credit, it quickly relented, allowing the amnesty box to stay in place.

The amnesty box has been well-received by Aberdeen travelers, Osborn says. He tells a story of a young soldier heading back to Iraq who had to leave behind a lighter.  “He voluntarily gave it up and then afterward said, ‘Oh man, that lighter got me through the first time,’ and asked that we send it to his mom, and we got the lighter back to his mother,” Osborn said.

Mail-backs save memories
Airports across the country, large and small, have instituted various programs to ensure that precious items aren’t lost forever, said Amy Von Walter, a spokesperson for the TSA.

Major airports can’t feasibly operate in the same intimate fashion as Aberdeen, Von Walter said, “just because of the sheer volume” of passengers.

However, travelers should know that just because a keepsake or any other item that isn’t allowed on a plane has been carried into a security checkpoint doesn’t mean it has to be surrendered, she said. “We give people a chance to return something to their vehicle or give it to someone not traveling, and many airports have a mail-back program run through their business centers or perhaps one of the airport stores,” she said.

Not every airport offers the mail-back programs and at those that do, “the procedure varies quite a bit, frankly, from airport to airport,” Von Walter said.

Salt Lake City airport, where an average of 190 prohibited items like knives or firearms or live ammo are confiscated on a daily basis, has a mail-back program that allows a passenger to step out of line and go to the gift shop to buy a mailing envelope and stamps and bring it back to the security checkpoint.

“We put the item in the envelope and seal it while [the passenger] watches and then mail it,” Earl Morris, federal security director at the airport, said when explaining the program to the Deseret Morning News. 

At the Melbourne International Airport in Florida, the mail-back program is on the airport’s dime.  “The TSA screener will provide the traveler with a padded envelope to address and enclose the item,” says The Flight Recorder, the airport’s own newsletter.  “The airport will take care of the rest.” 

A similar airport paid for mail-back program exists at Daytona Beach International Airport.  "We want our passengers to have a good experience," Stephen Cooke, director of business development for the airport told the Daytona Beach News-Journal. "We are always looking for things our competition can't match," he said.

Cooke acknowledged that such a paid program wouldn’t be economical for a larger airport. The highest cost of any one month since the program started in 2003 has been about $315, Cooke told the newspaper with more than 2,000 items returned since the program began.

A lot of angst at the airport can be eliminated with a little pre-planning.

“It’s important, especially during the crowed holiday traveling season, to know what’s in your bag, know what the rules are, as far as prohibited items go,” Von Walter said, “because you don’t want to be put in a position where you’re forced to give something up just because of time constraints.”