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Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Carly Christensen checks the photo identification and boarding pass of Chris Curphey at the Salt Lake City International Airport during holiday travel in 2003.

Daily for the past three years, passengers at U.S. airports surrendered an average of 14,000 potential weapons. That is enough to arm every passenger on 33 filled-to-capacity Boeing 747 jumbo jets — every day.

Despite intensifying concern about terrorism since the 9/11 attacks, the rate of finding such items is actually increasing. It rose from about 11 potential weapons surrendered per 1,000 originating passengers in 2003 to more than 12 last year.

"We can't really speculate why people keep bringing prohibited items," Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman Carrie Harmon said. "A lot of people honestly forget they have something wrong, and others are simply not preparing themselves carefully to go through airport security."

The findings come from TSA data for all U.S. airports obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Deseret Morning News. Analysis yielded many other interesting findings, including:

• Smaller airports actually have far higher rates of weapons surrendered per originating passenger than do larger airports. (Interestingly, the 9/11 terrorists chose to pass through security at smaller airports, thinking screeners there would be less vigilant than at large airports.)

• Still, the lion's share of potential weapons is confiscated at big airports because they have the most overall passengers. For example, just the nation's 33 "large hub" airports (including Salt Lake City International) found 59 percent of all items surrendered. Another 412 smaller airports combined to find the other 41 percent.

• Nearly 16 million potential weapons were surrendered at U.S. airports during three years from February 2002 (as TSA started taking over screening) through March 2005.

• Items collected included at least 4.8 million knives, 1,000 firearms, 7.8 million "sharp objects," 1.6 million prohibited tools (from chain saws to screwdrivers), nearly 69,000 weapon replicas, and 41,000 containers of ammunition or gunpowder. Of special interest after 9/11, it also included nearly 55,000 box cutters. (See charts below.)

• Screeners found one potential weapon for about every 111 people who passed through security. That means an average of one to four people on almost every flight — depending on the size of the plane — attempted to carry on a prohibited item.

• Two Utah airports, at Moab and Vernal, have among the highest rates of all airports for potential weapons surrendered per 1,000 originating passengers. Moab ranked sixth out of 444 airports with data available (finding 258 potential weapons per 1,000 passengers), and Vernal ranked 10th (finding 113 per 1,000 passengers). The average for all airports was just nine potential weapons per 1,000 passengers.

• Salt Lake City International reported 189,210 potential weapons collected in the three years. That was 7.4 per 1,000 originating passengers. That was slightly below the average for such "large hubs" of 7.7, and well under the average of 9 for all airports.

Tip of iceberg?

While confiscating 16 million prohibited items is a lot over the three years, officials say the numbers actually might have been even higher.

For example, Earl Morris, the TSA's federal security director for airports in Utah, figures that at Salt Lake City International, "We find 15 percent to 20 percent more items than we actually confiscate."

That is because passengers who inadvertently bring some prohibited items of lesser concern, such as small pocketknives, are allowed to go to a gift shop, buy stamps and an envelope and have the TSA mail the items to them. Some large airports nationwide offer similar options or even have self-mail kiosks near security.

Harmon says the TSA by law cannot forcibly seize prohibited items but can stop passengers from boarding planes unless they surrender them. (But cooperating local police can and do arrest people who try to artfully conceal dangerous items.)

She said passengers have the option of returning items to their cars or passing them off to a friend or ride-giver, so many such items are not among totals for surrendered prohibited items.

Data holes

Also, some holes exist in the data provided. For example, TSA quit tracking, at least in the data provided to the Deseret Morning News, how many firearms were surrendered after August 2004.

So, while data show only about 1,000 firearms surrendered nationally in the three years examined, Morris said Salt Lake City International alone actually found 162 guns in that time. He said 38 were retained for evidence in prosecution (even though TSA data had said the airport collected only 19). He said others were returned to owners, some of whom had them in checked luggage but had forgotten to declare them.

Also, especially during 2002 as the TSA worked to take over screening operations from private companies that year, many airports reported no weapons confiscated at all over long periods of many months.

In addition, government watchdog agencies have told Congress this year that undercover agents have been able to sneak weapons past security checkpoints and said overall security has not improved since before the 9/11 attacks. Such findings could also mean that more potential weapons than reported are actually showing up at airports.

A surprise

TSA officials acknowledged some surprise that smaller airports tend to find more weapons per passenger than larger airports.

Utah airports followed that trend. The Cedar City airport confiscated twice as many weapons per passenger as Salt Lake City International; St. George nabbed seven times as many; Vernal had 15 times as many; and Moab reported a whopping 35 times as many. (See charts.)

Harmon said the TSA does not generate its own data on weapons found per originating passenger, so it had not seen such findings previously. (The Deseret Morning News developed it by combining TSA weapons information with data about originating passengers from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.)

Analysis showed that the average number of weapons surrendered per 1,000 originating passengers at "large hub" airports nationally was 7.7; it was 10.4 at medium-size hubs, 13.9 at small hubs and 17.1 at non-hubs.

Morris guesses that happened in part because "people in small rural communities (around smaller airports) don't fly as often, so they are not as familiar with rules and regulations. And if you are from a farming community, maybe you are more likely to have things like a pocketknife or tools that are prohibited."

Also, he notes that small airports generally do not have gift shops or other options that large airports do to allow people to mail prohibited items back to themselves, so numbers of items there may be higher.

Harmon said no real difference exists between training for screeners at different sizes of airports or in the amount of time they take to check bags and people.

"Security is consistent from airport to airport," she said. "What varies is the travel habits of passengers from airport to airport."

Numbers of potential weapons surrendered also vary greatly.

Los Angeles International Airport confiscated the most, 718,685 total — about 4 percent of the nation's total by itself. (See accompanying charts.)

But LAX nabbed only 12.6 potential weapons per 1,000 originating passengers. The large-hub airport with the highest such rate — 24.1 potential weapons per 1,000 passengers — was Miami International.

Deseret Morning News graphicDNews graphicUnfriendly skiesRequires Adobe Acrobat.

But the rates at Miami and LAX trail far behind the small Greater Rockford airport in Illinois. It had a rate of 676 potential weapons per 1,000 originating passengers — the highest among U.S. airports with at least 1,000 passengers over the three-year period. In short, it reported more than one prohibited item for every two passengers.

The Deseret Morning News has a large chart available online (box chart at right) showing how many potential weapons — and what types — were seized at the 445 airports nationwide that reported confiscating at least one prohibited item during the three years examined. It also shows rates per passenger.


Despite confiscating 16 million prohibited items nationally in the three years, Harmon said the TSA initiated only 13,756 civil cases to seek fines against violators.

That means only one of about every 1,163 people who surrendered prohibited items faced civil penalties from TSA.

However, that does not count additional criminal charges that local police may have filed. Harmon said TSA does not have information about how many such cases may have been pursued nationally.

Locally, Barbara Gann, spokeswoman for the Salt Lake City Department of Airports, said city police made 61 arrests in that period of people trying to smuggle dangerous items on board. (That is about one arrest for every 3,100 items surrendered at Salt Lake International, and an arrest about every 2 1/2 weeks.)

Gann said only 12 of those arrested were taken to jail, while 49 were cited and released.

Morris added that locally, "when people are arrested, it's generally because they tried to artfully conceal something."

Harmon listed some of the more unusual, artfully concealed items that TSA agents have found nationally: a sword in a walking stick, a loaded gun in a teddy bear, a gun in a container that looked like a book, and a lipstick tube concealing a 3-inch knife blade.

Morris also said that if people bring some very dangerous items, they will be fined whether it was an accident or not. "If they bring something like a knife with a blade longer than 3 inches" — Salt Lake International found nearly 4,000 of them in three years — "they could be fined between $100 and $500 whether it is intentional or not."

In a time of so much concern about terrorism — which began when terrorists hijacked planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon — rates of items surrendered are still increasing.

The number of items reported surrendered grew from 6.2 million in 2003 to 7.1 million in 2004.

The rate of potential weapons found per 1,000 originating passengers also increased from 11 in 2003 to more than 12 last year.

Morris says that is disappointing because TSA has been "preaching the same thing for years" about what can and cannot be taken onboard, but people may not be listening.

At Salt Lake International, placards warn about what is acceptable, as do video messages and even exhibits of banned items. Still, people end up surrendering an average of 164 banned items there each day.

Morris said the most common mistake people make "is they just don't take time to stop and think through what they are carrying" and what is allowed or dangerous.

Harmon said, for example, "Just this past week, someone brought a bottle of tequila that was shaped like a revolver. Someone else brought a 10-pound rock. Someone brought a full can of gasoline for a car that was out of gas at their destination airport."

Morris said, "You would be amazed at how many people just always carry pocketknives with them and don't think about it before trying to go through security."

Of note, when items are confiscated at Salt Lake International, Morris said security officers store them in a locked area and make a daily inventory. Once a week, the General Services Administration collects them. Most are destroyed, but some are recycled, Morris said.

Many such items nationally have found their way to eBay online auctions recently, which has advertised sets of knives, scissors and tools confiscated at airports.

Harmon says the TSA encourages people to check www.tsa.gov for lists of what items are and are not allowed, or to call it toll free at 1-866-289-9673.

Among items that are banned from carry-on luggage are metal scissors with pointed tips, box cutters, knives of any length, baseball bats, bows and arrows, golf clubs, ski poles, ammunition, fireworks, axes, hammers, drills, screwdrivers, mace spray, realistic replicas of weapons, lighters and strike-anywhere matches.

Among items that are allowed in carry-on luggage are: corkscrews, cigar cutters, eyeglass repair tools, knitting needles and crochet hooks, round-bladed butter knives, nail files, safety razors, scissors with blunt tips and tweezers.

Data notes

Some caveats are needed with the data.

The TSA provided information about confiscated items on several hundred pages of paper and not in electronic form. Because the Deseret Morning News had to then enter the data itself into computer spreadsheets for analysis, that increased the chance for error (although it tried to double-check data as it was entered).

The TSA, at the request of the Deseret Morning News, reviewed summaries of its resulting spreadsheets for accuracy.

TSA officials had told the Deseret Morning News that if it wanted the data electronically, which would have reduced the likelihood of errors, it likely would have had to wait for more than a year to allow TSA to review every cell of data in spreadsheets to ensure they did not contain hidden information it did not feel should be released.

But, ironically, it offered to make the printed data available immediately. Entering the data and then analyzing it required many weeks.