My Mother-in-Law Is Owed an Apology


My mother-in-law once gave me a Leatherman multi-tool for Christmas. The one she gave me had Phillips and flathead screwdrivers, scissors, a knife, and more. It was a good gift, and one that I was looking forward to using. Alas, it was not meant to be.

That's because my wife and I, like millions of other people, live far away from where we grew up. We have to fly home every holiday season to see our families. The mix of long security lines, overbooked flights, and crowded terminals brings its own fresh hell every year. But if that's the price to pay for spending some time with our loved ones, it's worth it. The Year of the Leatherman, however, was something else.

We prefer to pack lightly, so we only brought carry-ons with us. It also helps us avoid checked-baggage fees and waiting for the luggage carousel to spit out our suitcases — if they arrive at all. The problem is that a lot of things aren't allowed in carry-on luggage because of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) regulations. Snowglobes, cattle prods, turpentine, and many other items are forbidden in carry-on bags. If TSA agents find any of these things, they confiscate them.

The full list of TSA's prohibited items is here. Leatherman tools are not on the list. But since they do contain knives, a TSA agent at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport decided he couldn't let me through.

Leatherman tools come in all-but invincible clamshell packaging that is virtually impossible to open without another Leatherman. My new Leatherman was still in said packaging, and I didn't have another one to open it with. There was no way I could use it. Even if I were a terrorist, my fellow passengers would have been safe that day.

I explained this to the TSA screener. He said I could go back to my airline's check-in kiosk, check my bag, and then stand in the security line again. At that point, that would mean missing our flight. Not an option. His only remaining option, he told me, was to confiscate the Christmas present my mother-in-law gave me.

This, naturally, made me rather mad. I decided to get even instead. "You can take it," I told the TSA screener. "I understand. This thing is brand new. It's top-of-the-line. It can do almost anything. And I can see you've had your eye on it. If you want it that badly, you can just have it."

"Sir, it's not like that," he shot back.

"I know," I said. "Maybe you already have one you took from another passenger. But I can't miss my flight. I'll just get another one when I get home. Enjoy your new Leatherman!"

My O'Hare antagonist probably wasn't corrupt. But now it turns out that the system may be. TSA screeners confiscate thousands and thousands of items from passengers every year. What do they do with all that booty?

A lot of the items end up in state surplus stores, it turns out. The federal government and most states run surplus stores to sell old and unused government equipment. Everything from desks and chairs to computers to, yes, items confiscated by the TSA, can be bought on the cheap at these stores.

One state surplus store in Texas made $300,000 in 2010 just from "willfully surrendered" items, as store employees insist on phrasing it.

So rest easy the next time a TSA screener takes away your spear gun (yes, that's on the verboten list). You're not just making air travel safer by leaving it behind. You're also doing your part to reduce government deficits.