Scissors, knives and lighters

For New Hampshire, there is profit in selling items that people surrender at airports

October 10, 2006|By Lisa Anderson | Lisa Anderson,Lisa Anderson writes for the

CONCORD, N.H. -- Did you kiss your corkscrew goodbye at Boston's Logan International Airport? Surrender your Swiss army knife at Providence's T.F. Green Airport? Take leave of your trowel at Connecticut's Bradley International? Relinquish your rolling pin at New Hampshire's Manchester-Boston Regional?

If so, the odds are good that John Supry has the items. Or at least he had them before he sold them at rock-bottom prices for the greater good of the Granite State. And yes, people have tried - and often failed - to carry rocks on board aircraft.

"We get a lot of rocks at Logan," said Supry, manager of a state agency that handles federal and state surplus material as well as items surrendered at some New England airports. And they are surrendered, not seized, insists the Transportation Security Administration.

"TSA does not confiscate items at the checkpoint; the items are voluntarily abandoned," TSA Midwest public affairs manager Lara Uselding said in an e-mail.

In any event, your loss at airport security screening at the aforementioned New England airports is New Hampshire's gain to the tune of about $26,000 a year.

Some states lack the resources to transport and warehouse such items, so neighboring states often step in. Science Applications International Corp. disposes of hazardous substances under a TSA contract.

New Hampshire handled only a fraction of the 9,835,349 passenger possessions turned over to the TSA during the first eight months of this year, but the revenue generated helps support the state's surplus program and defrays the cost of federal surplus equipment distributed to state and local agencies.

"It's worked out better than I thought," said Supry, 52, sitting in his office on a former dairy farm outside Concord on a recent afternoon. A 25-year veteran of New Hampshire's surplus services, he admits he had his doubts about two years ago when he began collecting swag snagged by airport security.

"I didn't think it was worth our time after the first time - there were just so many scissors, so many scissors," he said, shaking his head. He blanched at the memory of handling bushels and bushels of scissors - up to 6,000 pounds a month from Logan alone - before the ban on manicure scissors, small screwdrivers and similar items was lifted in December 2005.

Since then, scissors have been eclipsed in volume by lighters - 37,000 per day around the country or about 80 percent of all items collected, according to the TSA - but they, like other hazardous materials, generally are destroyed and not handled by state surplus agents.

What states do deal with - a lot - are Swiss army and similar pocketknives. "They're the next most popular things other than scissors and corkscrews," said Supry, noting that they are almost invariably red. At the moment, he has 15 40-pound boxes of the knives. He sells them for about $300 per box.

Most are blank or bear the name of a company. A few are personalized. Martha Cruz and Howard Watkins, wherever you are, be advised that John Supry has your Swiss army knives.

Some of the stuff is new and still in its original packaging. A rolling pin painted with chickens and something scrawled in indecipherable French still bears its $19.99 price tag, but it will go for chicken feed.

Other items clearly have seen better days. In Supry's inventory is a power drill, literally in pieces, that someone tried to take onto a plane. He has also seen rusty tools, soldering guns, jumper cables, shock absorbers, brake pads, used car parts and many ornate knives used by brides and grooms to cut their wedding cakes.

"There's always bushels of corkscrews. I never realized people drank so much on vacation," said Supry, leading the way through one of the former dairy barns that make up the surplus program's complex a few miles from the state Capitol. A big box containing dozens of corkscrews and a smattering of unmatched knives goes for $20.

"I guess people just don't think a golf club is a weapon," he said, looking over sporting goods that included two golf clubs, two pool cues, a cricket bat, a lacrosse stick, a hockey stick and assorted baseball bats, including small souvenir Red Sox bats. "Always a lot of souvenir baseball bats at Logan," he said. "Once in a while I find a Yankees one, but not too often."

Though he wasn't sure it fit in the sporting goods category, Supry pointed out a well-worn 6-foot leather bullwhip. "There's a lot of studded leather items," he said. "I say a lot. It's more than I would expect. You know, belts, bracelets."

"We get all kinds of toy guns. I don't know if they are kids' or not," he said, adding, "Belt buckles shaped like a gun aren't allowed."

Supry sells the goods to the public at the surplus complex on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. State agencies get the verboten booty free from the airports; in exchange, the airports pay nothing for disposal of the items.

And, in case anyone wonders in the wake of last summer's film Snakes on a Plane, Supry and his colleagues don't handle live items abandoned at checkpoints. Anyway, according to the TSA's Uselding, "Snakes are not allowed on board aircraft."

Lisa Anderson writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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