I didn’t know that was banned on a plane!

If you’re not entirely sure whether you’re allowed to pack your favorite can of hairspray, your teenager’s hoverboard, or that cellphone to which your companion seems to be surgically attached, you’re in good company.

Travelers are finding it increasingly difficult to remember all of the items that aren’t allowed on an aircraft. This isn’t a new problem — they’ve been confused since shortly after 9/11 when eager security screeners started confiscating nail clippers — but the problem seems to be getting worse.

“The unfortunate truth is that regardless of the steps airlines take to make passengers aware of restrictions, there always will be some passengers who remain unaware,” says Barry Alexander, an aviation attorney at the Philadelphia-based law firm Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis. “Some of those passengers likely will blame the airlines.”

And with good reason. The rules can be perplexing. They’re inconsistently applied and sometimes unknowable. A few weeks ago, for example, the Federal Aviation Administration “strongly” advised passengers to avoid turning on or charging the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 and recommended they not stow them in any checked baggage. The manufacturer then recalled the phones, citing “battery cell issues.” Then the FAA placed more limits on the phones, before banning them altogether from flights.

And who can forget last Christmas, when the hottest toy wasn’t allowed on U.S. airlines because of its unstable lithium-ion batteries? Hoverboards remain verboten on most domestic airlines, in case you’re wondering.

There’s another layer of complexity: the TSA’s often mercurial restrictions about what can and can’t be taken through its screening areas. I’m not even going to try to explain the 3-1-1 rule for liquids, gels and aerosols, except to say that you should leave that favorite can of hairspray at home. It’s probably too big.

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So what can you take on a plane? Well, almost anything.

Melissa Brown remembers flying from Philadelphia to Atlanta with a large screwdriver in her carry-on bag. “I had replaced a license plate the day before and completely forgot about it,” says Brown, a business manager from Malvern, Pa. “I have no idea how I got through TSA.” She disposed of it before her return flight.

Gordon Lambourne managed to get his fishing rod through the TSA checkpoint, but a flight attendant wouldn’t allow him to carry it on the plane. “She told me it could be used as a weapon — as a sword,” says Lambourne, a retired manager for a hospitality company in Washington. Fishing rods are not listed as banned items on the TSA’s site, and Lambourne has seen other passengers with fishing equipment on flights.

And Stephanie Diehl, a travel agent from Freeport, Ill., admits forgetting several banned items in her carry-on bag, including a large tube of sunscreen and her husband’s fishing knives. “Luckily they were not discovered,” she says.

Between TSA’s lapses and absentminded passengers, here’s the troubling reality: While the government may have its list of banned items and your airline might have another, the plane you’re sitting in (if you’re reading this on a plane) is probably filled with contraband.

The problem is systemic and can’t be fixed in this column. Thomas Boyce, a psychologist with the Center for Behavioral Safety and a frequent traveler, says inconsistency between airlines and security screening procedures over many years has led to this confusion. Simply clarifying the rules, which change by the minute, won’t really help.

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“Standardizing processes across the board would eliminate this confusion,” he says. That means standardizing screenings — no more “special” lines for the Pre-Check elite — and a master list of forbidden items that applies to all airlines as well as the TSA.

In other words, hoverboards, fishing rods and lithium-ion batteries aren’t the enemy here. Neither are careless screeners. The enemy is inconsistency. Isn’t it time for everyone to get on the same page?

Where to find out about the rules

When you’re flying domestically, there are at least three places to check before you fly.

• The Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA publishes a Pack Safe guide that focuses mostly on hazardous materials such explosives, flammable liquids and radioactive materials. These items are not allowed on any commercial flight, so consider this the most authoritative list.

• The Transportation Security Administration. A far more extensive list of banned items is published by the TSA on its site. But that list can change and, as the TSA notes, the final decision on whether something is allowed onboard or not rests with the TSA screener at the checkpoint. Also, don’t forget to check that liquid rule.

• Your airline. Airlines have their own list of items that are and aren’t allowed on a plane. Their lists usually match the government’s lists, but not always. See Delta Air Lines’ website, for example.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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