They are called ‘fun facts,’ little tidbits of information that add spice to everyday conversations. For example, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there are about 5,000 planes flying somewhere over the United States at this very moment. By the end of the day, more than 87,000 planes will be airborne. But, since 9/11, everyone boarding a plane has had to deal with extra security.
TSA, the Transportation Security Administration, is who mans the lines at airports making certain that no one boards with – shall we say – things that ought not be on an airplane; guns, knives, box cutters and a whole lot more.
“I can’t speculate on why people bring them,” says Carrie Harmon, TSA spokesperson at DIA. But, despite the wisdom of leaving ‘them’ – things that shouldn’t be on an airplane – someone is stopped every day by TSA for having something they shouldn’t have in their carry-on. And a lot of this happens at Denver International Airport, the fifth-ranked airport for confiscation of weapons or other red-flag items.
Life was simple when guns or knives seemed to be the most obvious items to be left at home. But times have changed. Today, guns and knives are just the top of the list of airplane carry-on ‘no-no’s.’
While gels or more than three-ounces of liquid will get you stopped before boarding, the list of other more puzzling items passengers bring with them keeps growing.
At DIA and other U.S. airports agents are stopping passengers who have – for whatever reason – decided to board with nunchuks (martial arts fighting sticks), Swiss Army knives, Swiss Army knives disguised as cell phones, live ammunition, grenades, ninja stars, brass knuckles, reptiles, exotic birds, turtles, coral, even the ultimate ‘combination plate,’ cocaine-filled tamales! (Note: Pot may be legal in Colorado but it remains illegal for carrying on an airplane.)
Harmon says there is “no particular kind of person” bringing these items to the airport. “We’ve found people across the age range, both male and female.” The red flag goes up, she says, “mostly during x-ray screening.”
But screening is not confined to the x-ray machine. “We have many layers of security in the airport.” People can be flagged at check-in, as a result of a canine reaction, personal behavior and a litany of other criteria. But trying to get the wrong thing through x-ray carries, perhaps, the lowest percentage of success if you’re carrying a gun. Unless you’re the exception, says Harmon, it will be detected and you will pay a price for your neglect or ignorance.
“As soon as we see the image of a gun, we call the police,” says Harmon. “They take possession,” of the weapon and the passenger. Penalties for a carrying a gun at an airport can be as high as $11,000. “The average fine is $3,000,” says the TSA spokesperson.
But, you can actually travel with firearms as long as you declare them. Harmon says you must tell the ticket agent about the weapon. “It must be unloaded in a hard-sided case.” There are no gray areas when it comes to guns. “You can’t say, ‘oh, I forgot…let me take it back.’ We alert law enforcement and it’s up to them.”
While it may seem odd that a gun owner forgets there is a weapon in his or her luggage, according to TSA, it happens every day. The agency manages an on-line site listing the airports and the items that have been confiscated each week. The numbers of seized weapons are eye-opening.
Just a look at them – not to mention other items seized by airport security – is more than troubling. TSA says weapons – sooner or later – almost guarantee something bad. “It’s inevitable. The rate of people packing is going up,” says Jerry Swanke, who represents American Federation of Government Workers – which includes TSA – in the union’s western region. In fact, TSA says weapon confiscation rose last year by 22 percent. “All it takes is one gun to go off. Someone is going to get hurt.”
Swanke would like to see a higher level of personal responsibility by gun owners going through airports. He’d also like to see more severe penalties. Guns, he says, put everyone at an airport at risk, “not just TSA personnel.”
But weapons, the guns, knives, flying stars and other exotica confiscated at airports, aren’t the only things that put passengers at peril on airplanes. The world learned this in the most painful way on March 24th when a seriously depressed pilot made the decision to end his life and that of 150 others on a flight over the Alps.
Who, the question is now being asked, screens the flight crews? And what determines who should or should not be flying? As an Air Force navigator, former Major Graciela Tiscareño-Sato flew as a navigator for thirteen years, circumnavigating the globe many times over and with a variety of crew members.
Tiscareño-Sato, an expatriate Coloradan, now successful San Francisco entrepreneur-author, is confident that the pilot responsible for the Alps disaster is the exception. “In the military, I would say the screening is quite rigorous.” She also believes that all air crew members – military or civilian – dealing with personal issues, ‘compartmentalize’ them. “When you have that kind of work and training, you get really good at focusing on what you have to do. You give full attention to the task at hand.”
The former Evans resident who earned her wings in Air Force ROTC says the flying public can board airplanes with the confidence that the Alps disaster was an aberration. “Think of all the planes flying on that day or since,” she says. “I think over-hyping is dangerous and can scare people to the point of being ridiculous.”
The numbers bear her out. In 2014, nearly 850,000,000 Americans boarded domestic flights; the highest number ever. Contrast that with 2014 TSA data for gun confiscations. Just over 2,200 guns were confiscated at the nation’s more than 450 airports. More than 80 percent of them were loaded and about one fourth had a round in the chamber. This year’s confiscations are on a similar pace.
During the last week of March, more than 450 guns were seized at just five U.S. airports, including DIA. Dallas-Fort Worth passengers gave up 120 weapons in a seven-day period. It was followed by Atlanta with 109, next was Phoenix Sky Harbor with 78, International Airport at Houston had 77 and DIA reported 70.
Results of the most recent TSA weapons confiscations can be seen at blog.tsa.gov.