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.

  • Lee

    Sorry – I don’t know how someone who reads even the tiniest bit of news didn’t know the hoverboard was banned from planes just as the phone was – it was all over the news.

    It is astonishing what some people do take on planes. Not long after 9/11, coming back from L.A. to NYC on a JetBlue flight, I was surprised to see a mother and daughter sitting and knitting in their seats while the flight was still boarding. Long, thin knitting needles. I asked a flight attendant about it, given I had just witnessed people having nail clippers taken from them during security and she said that knitting needles were allowed. Trying to find logic at times with what is and isn’t allowed is impossible – they allowed something on board that could easily be a weapon but snatched nail clippers from people.

    I don’t take anything that isn’t allowed. I do understand – because it is not at all complicated – the rule about what liquids in carryons (it really is not difficult to grasp) – I see every single time, people griping about how their bottles of water are not allowed or other liquids, their large bottles of shampoo, etc – all these years later and some people still don’t even know the most basic of rules and banned items.

    Yes, the industry could be more clear (though I think they are quite clear) but people/passengers can at the very least do a wee bit of looking to see what’s what before heading out to the airport. We don’t need to be holding everyone’s hand – and, given how such people routinely hold up security lines, I’m forever disheartened to see how uninformed so many people seem to be.

  • Alan Gore

    The point of this article is that the rules are not only complex, but inconsistently applied. Sometimes my toothpaste gets through, and sometimes it doesn’t.

    When the TSA is confronted on this point, at actually argues that inconsistency is a feature, not a bug. You see, if checking were too consistent it would be more easily gameable by terrorists.

  • DChamp56

    People store screwdrivers in their carry on bags?

  • ctporter

    Yes, not all travelers are leisure or executive types that do not need tools. I carry my 10-in-one with multiple bits with me along with other tools of my trade in my carryon bag when I can. So do all my counterparts across the country. My dielectric tester is too large to carry on, so it will get checked. A screwdriver needs to be less than 7″ overall (end to end) which is why I break mine down (remove the tip and shank) so there is no question that it is legitimate for carry on purposes.

  • AAGK

    You know a full size tube of toothpaste isn’t supposed to be allowed in carry on. You take it bc it’s easier and not always noticed but if it was, you would have no problem just tossing it out. That doesn’t prove that the TSA doesn’t know/follow rules.

  • Hanope

    After my older daughter didn’t realize her shampoo and hair spray weren’t allowed in her carry-on, which got tossed, on our last trip (though TSA missed her shower gel, which was in a different pocket), I’m making a point to review each and every item other than clothing my daughters are packing for our next trip. We plan to check one suitcase, due to liquids, so everything that is over 3 ounces is going in that.


    I once got stopped by a TSA employee in Atlanta for having too many coins in my coin purse. Told me it could be used as a weapon and was not permitted. I called for a supervisor as loudly as I dared and the power hungry TSA guy was sent off somewhere and my coins (1 and 2 pound coins for my UK visit) and I went on our merry way.

  • Mark

    All the TSA signs I have ever seen say that it’s 3 ounces or 100ml. I live in Europe and have never had any issue with 100ml items coming through TSA checkpoints.

  • cscasi

    Just shows the TSA is not catching everything. Plus TSA seems to be more relaxed with some things in the pre-check lines.

  • Rebecca

    There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that most travelers are at the mercy of the whim of TSA agents. Like any profession, most are simply there to do their job and get a paycheck. They’re polite if you’re polite.

    But most of us have been subjected to the random TSA [expletive] with a stick up their a$@. My experience is that it’s almost always the women in their 20s that give attitude, although that may simply because I’m a female. I always choose the line with a 30-40 year old guy whenever possible. Because they’re the most likely to just be polite and collect their paycheck.

  • MarkKelling

    I got pulled aside for extra security checks because I had 2 rolls of quarters in my bag. Was told they could be used as weapons. OK, so I unrolled them into a zip top bag and all was fine.

  • MarkKelling

    no more “special” lines for the Pre-Check elite

    Really? I mean, really??? This sounds like it comes from someone who has no idea what Pre Check does and feels those people have some special exemptions for security checks. They don’t. Your bag gets sent through the exact same x-ray check as every one else in every other line. You go through a metal detector, which is considerably faster than the scanners in the regular lines, but they detect more than many of the scanners. You are not exempt from security checks if you are Pre Check!

    A better option would be to make every line like Pre Check. It worked for 30+ years before the overpriced and overhyped scanners came on the scene.

  • MarkKelling

    I find it interesting that every time I check in on an Alaska Airlines flight to Alaska, they ask “How many rifles, shotguns, other firearms, and ammo will you be checking? And how many fishing rods?” and on the return trip same plus “How many sets of horns or ice chests with fish?”

    They definitely fall outside the norm for what they allow as part of your luggage.

  • MarkKelling

    I have noticed the same thing. I try and observe how things are going before I get in a specific lane. Once a woman TSA person was loudly yelling at everyone else in the lane because someone in a wheel chair has a catheter and collection bag that set off the scanner.

    I moved over a couple lanes.

  • BubbaJoe123

    Precheck has absolutely nothing to do with what’s allowed on the plane or not.


    They cannot make up their minds on what is more dangerous–rolled coins or loose coins. Still makes me laugh.

  • jmtabb

    I”m a knitter. After 9/11 there was lots of talk about what was allowed and what wasn’t. Usually wood and bamboo knitting needles are allowed – would you ban a pencil or a ball point pen? They aren’t any more dangerous than that if made of wood or bamboo.

  • AAGK

    I agree but practically the line would take hours if they really searched every compartment of a bag that carefully.

  • LonnieC

    TSA has a phone app which is updated frequently. It includes a Guide which includes information on what you can and cannot bring. It also has a “Can I Bring” option which allows you to type in a specific item and see if it’s okay. When I typed in “fishing pole”, it said it’s okay, but also advised to check with the specific airline as well. And it included much more information on fishing-related items (sharp hooks, etc.) which might also be a problem.

    While there is certainly an element of “theater” in the TSA rules and procedures, the App is free, and is really quite complete and useful.

  • LonnieC

    Wow. I lost a very good jeweler’s screwdriver set a couple of years ago. It’s loss still burns me. And it was only about 2″ long. I think the TSA guard just wanted a set for himself….

  • jsn55

    All that’s needed is a quick read of TSA and your airline’s rules regarding carryon items, this is a pretty simple concept.

  • Carchar

    I understand how confusing it can be for foreigners. When flying domestically on Qantas, we were allowed our water bottles and regular-size shampoos, etc. But, the tiniest scissors from hotel sewing repair kits, that appeared on the belt screens, were meticulously searched out and confiscated. They are allowed in the US. I have always wondered why the pointiest 5-inch stilletto heels have never raised an eyebrow.

  • michael anthony

    Just about anything you bring on a plane could be used as a weapon. A laptop could knock someone out, just like a full purse. Nylons for obvious reasons (read too many mysteries). The list is endless. As one noted terrorism expert said, “by the time the public is told they can’t do or use something terrorists have moved on to other things”.

    The 3-1-1 rule remains the most ridiculous of all. It’s not consistent at all. I went on a 2 day trip and brought my rolled up, nearly empty toothpaste. The screener said NO, because the container was larger than 3oz.

  • PsyGuy

    In Texas, it’s not uncommon for someone to put their firearms in their carry-on.

    No one needs to take a hoverboard on a plane.

    Who uses hairspray anymore?

  • PsyGuy

    Forget nylons it’s the silk stalkings you have to watch out for?

  • PsyGuy

    You know how much a good pair of Prada heels costs?

  • PsyGuy

    But then 9/11 happened.

  • PsyGuy

    I wouldn’t let you on with 1 or 2 pound coins, that’s a REALLY heavy coin, or did you mean £?

  • PsyGuy

    Just buy a bottle of the stuff you need at the destination.

  • PsyGuy

    One hint you can’t take a bottle of water through security but you can the empty bottle, and water fountains are free.

  • PsyGuy

    Duty free what, Scotch? Yeah, that might be used as a weapon, especially on a Friday afternoon.

  • PsyGuy

    I haven’t either and it’s not just Europe it’s everywhere but the USA.

  • Annie M

    Can someone explain why a writer does this cross out thing when writing? I see this frequently here and don’t understand it.

    “The FAA publishes a Pack Safe” – the Pack Safe is crossed out in the story.

  • ctporter

    I have found that when I see words crossed out it was supposed to be a link, but the link is broken. (you get page not found, sometimes error 404)

  • joycexyz

    That knitting needle thing is a hoot! Can’t fathom the fuzzy thinking behind that one! And I’m reminded of the time we went on a cruise, and my husband’s pocket knife (in his pocket) was confiscated. Are they not aware of all the items on a ship that are potential weapons (including steak knives)? Also, I’m sure the knife would have been just fine in the luggage loaded on the ship. I’d love to be a fly on the wall at the TSA planning meetings. Or perhaps they have in-house contests for the most ridiculous ideas.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    Security theater. Once the pilot’s compartment is sealed behind a bullet proof wall and door, no non-explosive weapon really matters for 9/11 purposes because the bad guys can’t control the plane. They could threaten passengers, but that has already happened in the long security line overseas and pizza places in DC.

  • Bill___A

    Sorry but I don’t find it difficult at all to figure out what is banned and what is not. However, for those that need a helping hand, they should read this.

  • Bill___A

    Your toothpaste in a 3 oz or 100 ml container sometimes doesn’t make it through? Or you mean you can often get a bigger one through? I have a 100 ml size of toothpaste and I do not expect to have it confiscated at all.

  • PsyGuy

    What do you win, you’re still a TSA inspector. It’s like winning the rat race, so what, you’re still a rat.

  • 42NYC

    I once had a roll of duct tape confiscated by the Panamanian version of the TSA. Why duct tape is an issue? No idea.

  • JewelEyed

    That’s exactly the kind of screener that wanted to search my chest *inside my shirt* because of a necklace that was way above the neckline of my shirt. It was a man in his 40s or 50s who was there with her who stopped her and said “Clearly, it’s the necklace, it’s too high up to be anything else” and told me to go ahead.

  • JewelEyed

    It’s great for removing ink stains, but other than that, mostly older women.

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