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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 May 2006, 07:39 GMT 08:39 UK
US flight security's sharp practices

By Guto Harri
BBC North America business correspondent

Transporation Security Administration official
The officials are looking for items that could be used to cause harm
It's mid-morning at LaGuardia Airport in New York, and a small bucket in the security area is already filling up.

Small knives, nail clippers, scissors, lighters, training weights and a car steering lock - the haul so far is fairly typical.

Most look pretty harmless, but the trained staff of the Transportation Security Administration have to consider their potential in the hands of a man or woman with hostile intent.

Douglas Hofsass, Federal Security Director at LaGuardia, explains: "A traditional tool like a Leatherman has a legitimate use as a multi-purpose tool, but it also has a significant blade inside so what we're looking for is its capability if someone had an intent to use it for another purpose".

Every week, they collect around 7,000 items here.

Confiscated items
We call it the general fund, and all agencies can share in the use of that revenue or we return it to the taxpayers
Ken Hess, director, Bureau of Supplies and Surplus Operations in Pennsylvania

In a side office nearby Mr Hofsass shows me the "wall of shame", a collage of confiscated goods that have shocked even the seasoned security men that have spent years here.

There are a couple of hand grenades, a machete, whips, and vicious-looking blades, all discovered in the hand luggage which certain passengers had hoped to take on a plane.

These shocking items will stay here to help train the staff, but the rest is handed over the Bureau of Supplies and Surplus Operations in Pennsylvania.

Personal items

The Bureau's headquarters is a dusty, dim-lit building in the state capital of Harrisburg.

Ten tonnes of material arrives here every month, in cardboard boxes and plastic bins.

Confiscated items
Some of the confiscated items are deemed 'personal'

They are separated by brand and by category so that they can be sold en masse in an internet auction.

Some are harder to sell than others.

There's a curious surplus of handcuffs, some covered in silk, lace or leopard skin, a reminder that some very personal items have been surrendered.

Susan Nelson, shifting through some scissors, admits she often feels guilty about the trade:

"A couple of times I have found bride and groom cake-cutting set. A lot of times it has their names on it as well as the wedding dates and it is really sad for them because its clearly a memento or something that maybe somebody flew on the plane to the wedding wanted to give them as a gift, and that's really a shame."

General fund

Ken Hess, director of the Bureau, is keen to stress that these items are "voluntarily surrendered" rather than confiscated.

Confiscated items
Selling sharp items helps bring in the dollars

In other words, anyone with a deep attachment to an item could have turned around at security - got back into the airport, re-packed them for the hold, or dropped them in the post to their home.

Realistically, that is pretty rare because the delay would make the passenger in question miss their flight.

But Mr Hess is not really worried.

This, for him, has become big business.

"Usually between $15,000 (8,000) and $20,000 a month in revenue, so far we've made $274,000 in total."

That is pretty good, considering the scheme was only put in place last autumn.

And the money goes to the state of Pennsylvania.

"We call it the general fund, and all agencies can share in the use of that revenue or we return it to the taxpayers," says Mr Hess.

The rules put in place after the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers have been relaxed a little lately.

Cuticle cutters for instance can now survive security screening, and that has reduced the supply of goods to the Harrisburg warehouse.

But the only thing that would really harm this business badly is if the rest of us pack our bags properly and put prohibited items in the hold of the plane, or leave it at home.

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