How Many Banned Items Have You Gotten Past TSA?

A new poll shows that half of airline passengers admit to bringing banned items onto the airplane. Is the TSA just not paying attention anymore?

Jan 20, 2014 at 11:00AM

In 2013, routine searches by the Transportation Security Administration at airport security checks uncovered 1,828 guns in passenger carry-on bags, a 20% increase from 2012. Of these, 84% of the weapons were discovered to be loaded.

More than a decade into the post-9/11 era, how is that even possible?

According to Prof. Jeffrey Price of the Metropolitan State University in Denver, the increase in gun discoveries is proof that "some people think [TSA is] not paying as much attention anymore." With fines for attempting to bring a loaded handgun aboard a plane running anywhere from $250 to $11,000 per occurrence (plus the potential for criminal charges), that could be a costly mistake to make...

Or maybe not.

Security screeners or Keystone cops?
Turns out, the travelers may have had it right all along.

According to a new poll just out of air travel information website Airfarewatchdog, almost 50% of travelers say they have "accidentally gotten a banned item past the TSA and onto their flight" at least once. Nearly one passenger in four says they've had this particular (ahem) "accident" happen "on multiple occasions."

Specifically, the poll, which just wrapped up, showed that out of more than 4,600 travelers surveyed:

  • 26% slipped on by the TSA "once"
  • 23% have gotten away with bringing banned items on board more than once
  • 51% averred "no," they've never encountered this particular accident. Cross their hearts, hope to die, stick a needle in their... um, needles are still allowed on-board, right?

Now, not all of these accidents involved handguns, of course. Even if TSA isn't particularly skilled at checking for banned items, it's very good at drawing up lists of them. On the agency's website, you can find expansive lists of items you're really not supposed to bring on a plane. These include:

  • Swords
  • Meat cleavers
  • Bows and arrows
  • (Got it. Medieval weaponry is out).
  • Brass knuckles
  • Nunchucks
  • Throwing stars
  • (Okay. Ixnay on the medieval Asian eaponryway, too).
  • Starter pistols
  • Spear guns
  • BB guns
  • Flare guns
  • (But guns... guns are OK, right? No? Oh, my mistake).
  • Blasting caps
  • Dynamite
  • Gasoline
  • and hand grenades (!)

Chances are, most of the items that nearly half of all travelers say they've managed to slip past TSA don't fall into many of these categories. After all, at the very least, these security guards do seem to be doing a fair job of keeping guns off of planes. So it's more likely that the prohibited items passengers say they've snuck past TSA, and aboard planes, fall into the category of minor no-nos as butane lighters and matchboxes, pocketknives, scissors, and "snow globes" containing more than 3.4 ounces of fluid.

Familiarity (with the TSA) breeds contempt
Still, the fact that TSA is laying down rules, yet failing to competently enforce them, may pose another problem entirely. It seems that people who have the most familiarity with how TSA works, and how well it works -- frequent flyers -- have a remarkably jaded opinion of the agency.

An October 2013 poll conducted by Frequent Business Traveler magazine found that 85% of frequent flyers think the TSA does only a "fair" or even a "poor" job at its assigned tasks. What's more, 66% of such travelers think the agency isn't doing a very effective of keeping terrorists off of planes. The magazine did note that these scores had improved slightly from 2012 levels. However, Frequent Business Traveler attributed this improvement less to better service at the TSA, and more to passengers minimizing their contact with TSA by taking advantage of the "pre-check" program for streamlined security screening. At last report, nine separate airlines, including the nation's biggest by passengers carried, Delta (NYSE:DAL), and by revenues, United (NYSE:UAL), are now participating in the program.

Summing up its results, the magazine noted that "the typical frequent flyer continues to hold the TSA in fairly low regard and has a similar lack of confidence in the TSA's overall effectiveness."

Shocker.

Take a lesson from Warren Buffett
Warren Buffett has bought scores of airplanes for Berkshire Hathaway's Netjets subsidiary, but he famously shies away from investing in airlines. Instead, he's focused on his very best few ideas, bet big, and rode them to riches, hardly ever selling. You deserve the same. That's why our CEO, legendary investor Tom Gardner, has permitted us to reveal "The Motley Fool's 3 Stocks to Own Forever." These picks are free today! Just click here now to uncover the three companies we love. 

Fool contributor Rich Smith has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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