New regulations effective on April 25, 2013, will allow people to carry non-locking knives with a 2.36-inch blade, for example, as well as toy bats, pool cues, ski poles, hockey and lacrosse sticks, and up to two golf clubs. Yet as more than one wag on Twitter has quipped, you still can't bring aboard a full-sized bottle of contact lens solution.
The surprises don't stop with the regulations. The TSA's well-written (and often humorous) blog, overseen by "Blogger Bob," agency Social Media Analyst Curtis Robert Burns, regularly reports on items that have been confiscated from passengers -- and the list can be enlightening. Following is a look at some of the wackier incidents.
Who would have thought that gravy would be a menace? The TSA specifically warns that creamy foods, such as cheese spreads, gravy and sauces, could be confiscated. Peanut butter, mustard, salsa and yogurt are also off limits. And it goes without saying that wine, beer and other liquids need to go into your checked bag.
Pies, cakes and baked goods are usually okay, although they may undergo extra screening. In January 2012, the agency underwent its own "cupcake wars" when an agent took dessert from a woman traveling from Boston to Las Vegas. In its defense, the agency noted that the suspicious sweet wasn't a typical cupcake with a high cake-to-frosting ratio; instead, the cupcake in a jar -- sold by Wicked Good Cupcakes in Cohasset, Massachusetts, which experienced record sales after the incident went viral -- appeared more like a gel than a solid, and thus was confiscated.
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If you're bringing a pet in the cabin, it has to go through security, just like everything else. For cats and dogs, you take them out of their carrier and bring them through the metal detector (animals can't go through the full body scanner).
Besides your run-of-the-mill furry creatures, the TSA gets more interesting cases. In February 2012, several Asian river otter pups from the Wildlife World Zoo in Phoenix went through security at Newark; they had traveled for a TV appearance on the "Late Show with David Letterman," according to the TSA blog.
Agents found a container of dead venomous snakes in a checked bag in Newark in March 2012. While the reptiles are not prohibited, the liquid jar that they were kept in set off an alarm, forcing agents to respond, the TSA blog said.
If snakes on a plane leave you rattled, consider the entire marine ecosystem that a Miami passenger tried to take in his checked baggage in March 2012. More than 160 tropical fish, 22 live eels and 24 live coral pieces were being smuggled from the U.S. to Maracaibo, Venezuela; once caught, the passenger surrendered the goods to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
As long as they follow other guidelines, adult toys are permitted to pass through security (although there have been reports that TSA agents might show unusual interest). Gels are okay if they are less than 3.4 ounces, and you're better off stowing handcuffs and other similar gear in your checked luggage.
On its blog, the agency has gone out of its way to let passengers know that chastity belts are okay, although they do set off body scanner alarms (and you will likely receive a pat-down). "You can imagine where an undergarment such as this might be a problem at a security checkpoint," Burns wrote. "Especially if there is no key."
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All joking aside, the most sobering part of reading the TSA blog is seeing how many people, whether by accident or on purpose, bring guns to the nation's airports. In his blog post on March 8, 2013, Bob Burns noted that 33 firearms were confiscated by the TSA at checkpoints in the previous week -- and 26 of them were loaded.
The TSA allows licensed gun owners to travel with their firearms, but they need to declare them to the airline and put them -- unloaded -- in checked luggage in a locked, hard-sided container (bullets can be checked separately). That apparently seemed like too much work for a Houston passenger in late February; to avoid declaring his weapons, the man wrapped two guns in newspaper and placed them in a box of detergent powder in his checked baggage.
Toy and replica hand grenades, inert ordnance (often from returning military members), and other weapons show up at TSA checkpoints almost every week, according to the blog. "Please keep in mind that if an item looks like a realistic bomb, grenade, mine, etc., it is prohibited -- real or not," Burns wrote. "I know they are cool novelty items, but you cannot bring them on a plane."
Other forbidden weapons that show up on the TSA reports include rocket launchers, brass knuckles, batons, fireworks, flare guns, knives disguised as combs and canes that have swords inside (which one might think had disappeared in the past century). Stun guns are "shockingly" popular; in December 2012, the TSA found 26 stun guns in a carry-on bag at JFK.
In March 2013, TSA officers in Indianapolis discovered 30 electric matches, a bag of potassium chlorate, a bag of titanium powder, another bag of powder and a suicide vest in someone's checked luggage. The passenger turned out to be an explosives instructor. "We're all too familiar with instructors and other people in this type of business needing these sorts of items for their jobs," Burns wrote. But the TSA doesn't "know they're not real until we've checked them out." He suggests that people in this situation mail the training aids to their destination ahead of time.
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What Happens Next?
Once items are confiscated (or, in many cases, left behind in airports), the federal government is required to gives them to the states to resell. Some states take care of this at government surplus stores or auctions, while others use Web sites such as GovDeals.com, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Apparently, the practice can be lucrative. The WSJ article notes that "Texas collected about $259,000 at its storefront during the first five months of 2012" and "Pennsylvania, which auctions off property from airports in six mid-Atlantic states including New York, says it has put $700,000 in the state treasury since 2004 from TSA sales."
The new rules concerning knives may be a bummer for these frequent surplus shoppers (one woman in the WSJ article goes to the Texas store to buy knives for her kids). And the rules are sure to be confusing, although the TSA blog has put together a photo guide explaining what types of knives and bats are verboten. To get the latest, download the TSA's mobile app, MyTSA, which allows you to ask if you can bring a particular item onboard. You don't want that cupcake confiscated!
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-- written by Chris Gray Faust