Have a machete? Forget about flying

Carolyn Sackariason
Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times
ALL | The Aspen Times

Bringing a knife to the airport and expecting to get through the security is not the brightest idea, yet hundreds of people do it every year in Aspen.Nearly six years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, there are still millions of people who attempt to bring prohibited items on board airplanes throughout the country.

In Aspen and the surrounding eight regional airports, between 400 and 500 pounds of knives, tools and other potential weapons are surrendered each year, said officials from the Transportation Security Administration, which protects the nation’s transportation systems.Besides lighters, the most popular item taken at the security checkpoint at the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport is knives. Not the cheap ones either – most popular are Leatherman, Swiss Army and specialized cutting knives, which show up in mass quantities during hunting season. Ammunition, another prohibited item, also shows up in large amounts during hunting season. And during the holidays, a lot of toy guns given as gifts must be surrendered.According to Ralph Hamlin, assistant federal security director for the TSA, a person last year attempted to bring a 3-foot-long machete on board at the Durango airport. And in Grand Junction, a woman tried to carry a human skull through the security checkpoint; it turned out that the skull was taken from an Indian burial site and the woman had to surrender it. In Telluride, a passenger thought it would be OK to bring along a milk jug of kerosene.On a recent visit to the Aspen airport, Hamlin displayed a month’s worth of surrendered items from passengers traveling through the nine regional airports on the Western Slope.The items included hundreds of Swiss Army knives, a set of steak knives, a barbecue tool set, a set of darts, razor blades and even box-cutters. Travelers walking by gazed at the mass of weapons. One man tried to find a knife that he had given up previously.”Once you surrender the item, it’s the government’s,” Hamlin explained. “Everybody has the opportunity to give it to a friend not traveling, check it in their bag or put it in the car.”Hamlin added that in Aspen and the other smaller airports, an airline will pull a checked bag for people who don’t realize that a 10-inch screwdriver, a machete or a knife are prohibited items.

“Anything that is a bludgeoning item, something that you can wield,” Hamlin said.An even better option is to not bring those items at all. TSA officials ask that travelers be prepared at the security check-in by knowing the rules and following them.”While many people understand the rules, others don’t,” said TSA spokeswoman Carrie Harmon. “People need to be prepared when they get to the checkpoint because if they aren’t, it not only holds them up but the passengers behind them.”According to the TSA, the average wait at an airport security checkpoint is 13.7 minutes – 1.20 seconds longer than last year.Nationally, 2,600 knives, 20 clubs, 26,000 lighters and one gun are surrendered every day, according to TSA officials. So far this year, 559,000 knives and 35,000 “deadly and dangerous” items have been surrendered nationally, Harmon said. By the end of the year, the total number of items will grow to more than 5 million, 4.4 million of which are expected to be lighters.Harmon said some of the more odd items surrendered in Denver include fully gassed chain saws, a cobra in a jar filled with formaldehyde, a cane with a sword built in its middle core and a 6-foot-long African spear.

It appears that most people are willing to part with their belongings, based on how many things are surrendered every day. Plus, TSA officials say $185,000 worth of change is left behind every day at the nation’s airports.”We do live in a disposable society,” Hamlin said. “Aspen folks aren’t really vocal [about having to surrender their belongings].”It varies from state to state, but in Colorado, the surrendered items and forgotten coins are handed over to the Government Services Agency in Denver. From there, items like knives and other useful things are auctioned off in large quantities.The items are stored in a GSA warehouse in Denver until they are ready to be listed on a website. (The GSA is responsible for managing the government’s property.)The GSA Personal Property Center in Building 41 at the Denver Federal Center had been established to help federal agencies deal with excess government-owned property. The GSA arranges to pick up the property at Denver International Airport. Typically, 400 to 500 pounds per month is collected. However, that number has declined since small scissors, fingernail clippers and the like are no longer prohibited onboard. “What we do in a year, Denver does in a month,” Hamlin said of the Western Slope territory. Property from other airports around Colorado also is collected for disposal. Once items are brought to the warehouse, GSA sorts items into similar commodities such as multitools, knives and scissors. GSA first offers to transfer or donate items to authorized agencies such as the National Science Foundation for use at the Antarctica Research Facility (Leatherman multitools); U.S Army (tools and knives); U.S. Forest Service Fire Cache at the Denver Federal Center (tools); South Dakota and Wyoming state agencies for surplus property (tools, knives, scissors).GSA then sells the remaining items to the public at Proceeds are used to defer the costs of running the property center. GSA employees are prohibited from purchasing property.

“Forgetfulness is costly,” said Viki Reath, who works in the GSA Public Affairs in Washington, D.C. “Remember to leave your tools and knives at home or the federal government, as well as state and local governments, will make good use of the property ‘voluntarily abandoned’ by the forgetful.”Liquids, aerosols and gels that are in containers weighing more than 3.4 ounces are dumped in the garbage. Hazmat materials such as lighters and other combustible substances, as well as sharp items like syringes, are put in sealed bins in Aspen and picked up twice a year by a contractor to be disposed of in Denver.Although they have been repeating the “3-1-1″ rule for nearly a year, TSA officials said people still don’t get it. Three-ounce containers of liquids, aerosols or gels are allowed in a 1-quart clear bag, and one bag per passenger. Everything else will be taken away and dumped.TSA officials said that some people traveling through smaller airports like Aspen believe security may be more relaxed. That couldn’t be further from the truth, Hamlin said.”People can get into the system from here and three people with separate parts could assemble a gun in Denver,” he said. “Vigilance is the same here as anywhere.”Rules on prohibited items change frequently so TSA officials ask that before traveling, people check the website,, for the latest list of what’s allowed and what’s not.