Look out! 4 things that get damaged at the airport

wheelchairTSA agents believe they are the last line of defense against terrorism, and that sometimes you have to break a few metaphorical eggs to keep America safe.

At least that’s the impression Norma Eigles came away with when she was recently screened at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in South Florida. Eigles, who was visiting relatives in Boca Raton, Fla., is 75 years old and has a knee replacement — an unlikely threat to aviation security.

“While I was being patted down, another screener opened my carry-on bag to remove my adjustable cane,” she says. “This was sent through X-ray again, and he then proceeded to unscrew the sections because he said he had to be sure there was no knife or sword in it.”

That’s odd, she thought. What’s the point of an X-ray, if not to see inside the cane?

“He opened it past the ‘stop’ line, and now it can’t be screwed back together,” she says. “The device is now unusable. It was my favorite mobility device.”

The TSA loves to talk about the contraband it confiscates at the airport in its “week in review” post on its blog. Among its latest spoils in the war or terrorism: replica grenades, “black powder” and a garrote. Interestingly, the agency never says whether these items would have been used for nefarious purposes, although it’s difficult to imagine anyone hijacking a plane with a garrote.

The problem is that, perhaps in their zeal to contribute to “week in review,” agents often rummage through passengers’ personal belongings without care. Unfortunately, the claims process is a black hole; your letter goes in, but nothing comes out. I know because I’m copied on many of those complaints over at my consumer advocacy site.

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Here are the four most common things that are broken by the TSA, according to my readers.

Medical devices
Eigles is not an anomaly. Almost every week, I hear from a passenger whose medical device — often a cane or wheelchair– is damaged by an agent. Who can forget the case of Savannah Barry, the 16-year-old who tried to bring her $10,000 insulin pump on a plane in Salt Lake City, last spring. Barry said she showed a letter from her doctor to the TSA agent who was screening her. The letter explaining her special medical need apparently didn’t matter. The agent pointed her toward a full-body scanner and sent her pump through the X-ray machine, reportedly breaking it. Why does the TSA break so many medical devices? Maybe it can’t tell the difference between one and a dangerous weapon.

Your baggage
I’ve lost count of how many luggage complaints I’ve received. Janice Brunelle is among them. She was flying from Florida to New Hampshire recently when TSA agents decided to take a closer look at the suspicious-looking baking pans in her carry-on luggage. “Problem is,” she says, “when they opened my suitcase that wasn’t locked, TSA broke off my zipper tabs. I don’t know why they had to be so rough.” Brunelle does what a vast majority of these travelers do: nothing. “I will just deal with it,” she adds.

TSA agents have a strong, personal interest in your personal electronic devices, particularly iPads. Interestingly, many electronic devices don’t even have to be removed from your carry-on luggage, but they are anyway. Problems with laptop damage predate the TSA, but since the agency still demands that the devices be removed at the screening area, these items become vulnerable to being bent, shattered and otherwise disabled. On a recent list of the most lost or damaged items, laptops ranked first.

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Luggage “locks”
TSA agents force their way into your checked luggage if you lock it, and if they have to break a lock to do it, they will. Don’t worry, they’ll leave a little note letting you know about it. But unless it’s a “TSA-approved” lock, don’t bother filling out a claim form. And even then, the chances of getting your claim lost in a bureaucratic maze are fairly high, at least in my experience. The agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems would rather you leave your checked luggage unlocked, and completely vulnerable to anyone who wants to pilfer from it along the way.

Some of the damage I’ve described is unavoidable. If a careless TSA agent wants to bend your walker or crack your laptop during the screening process, there’s very little you can do to stop it, except to ask politely: “Please be careful.” You can also eliminate some of the risk by leaving items that are likely to be damaged at home.

The real answer is better training and more sensible rules. For example, no one has fully explained why iPads stay in the bag but laptops come out, at least to my satisfaction. If something needs additional screening, why can’t I handle it at the end of the conveyor belt? That’s also unclear.

Bottom line: TSA shouldn’t be breaking any of our property. And if it does, it should replace it quickly and apologize instead of asking us to fill out another form and wait for a response that may never come.

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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.

  • Anonymous Flyer

    I’m seriously considering picking up a starter pistol and checking it every time I fly. Checked luggage containing “firearms” has to be locked, and nobody gets to open it.

  • “The real answer is better training and more sensible rules.”

    No, the real answer is to get rid of this gang of criminals and thugs, starting with the one at the top, John Pistole.

  • I like that solution, too.

  • BillCCC

    The TSA should never damage someone’s property deliberately but accidents will happen from time to time. The claims process should be quick and painless for the traveler.

  • S E Tammela

    The entire TSA “thing” just makes me sad. It’s a half-baked attempt at a cure, when prevention is always better than cure. Unfortunately, the religious terrorists attack the countries which criticise their religions. Cultural tolerance, education, acceptance of the world’s differences and less jumping into combat… it would all do far more to reduce terrorism than rude and careless rent-a-cops at the airport gates.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    The TSA did NOT find a garrote. It was a camping saw, which about 15 commenters said, some with links, in the comments section of that post. So, that’s another lie TSA continues to foist on America.

    I’ve seen several online comments about TSA screeners dumping powders and liquids that were originally properly sealed all over the passenger’s clothes during a checked baggage check. I think these are particularly jealous and nasty screeners, not just incompetent, but I don’t know why these vandals aren’t fired or rotated out of checked baggage when complaints are made. No accountability is my guess.

    Also, any screener who intentionally breaks a passenger’s property should be written up or fired. How to know if it was intentional? There will be a pattern – Screener Jones has more claims of “accidental damage” than any other screener.

    Of course, this is all too logical for an agency that sees all travelers as “the enemy” and whose supervisors foster the “do anything you want” attitude of their employees.

  • john4868

    Chris … In case you didn’t send it to her already, here’s the link to the TSA claims form for the woman who’s cane was broken during screening (http://www.tsa.gov/traveler-information/claim-forms). Since its on tape, it should be a slam dunk.

  • Daisiemae

    Hear! Hear!

  • Daisiemae

    Better training will accomplish nothing. There is no way to train morality and integrity.

  • naoma

    I had some very special brass luggage tags and one was stolen — my name and address on it. Another time they stole my lock (the kind that they can open). It is really annoying and nothing you can do about it.

  • cjr001

    When it comes to TSA, NOTHING is a ‘slam dunk’.

    To continue the analogy: you go up for the slam, but TSA not only blocks you and fouls you by throwing you to the ground, the refs – the courts – ignore the whole thing like nothing happened.

  • DReinig

    I have been told by several airports if you have an electronic device larger than the palm of your hand, you need to remove it from the bag. So not only am I removing my laptop, but I also have to remove my iPad and Bose headsets.

  • NoraG

    I wish there were more choices than “yes” or “no”. Are they “ever” justified? I believe so, since some things look….interesting on an x-ray machine and really do need to be looked at. But I also believe that the majority of damage is done by TSA agents for a couple of reasons totally unrelated to security. Some are getting even with passengers for not acting like little sheep. Others are just on a power trip and want to cause damage because they know they can.
    There should be serious accountability. If they can record everything else, how about if they record the x-ray images so that there is a record of why they thought there was a need for further ivestigation?

  • NoraG

    Flyer, I’ve known people who check firearms. Believe me, you have never seen the hassle that they go through. For one thing, get to the airport 3 hours early. They try to make you late for your flight.

  • Shosh Skopp


  • Charlie Funk

    Never believe the TSA screeners don’t “know their stuff”. Some years ago we had flown to Istanbul with a plane change in Atlanta, flew home from Athens over JFK. My wife had a small jar of a quite expensive face cream in her “quart bag” that had sailed through the toughest of inspections until we were on our way to our connecting flight at JFK. From a distance of at least ten feet a female TSA supervisor observed the container and announced loudly enough for her associate at the converyor belt to hear “That’s a 3.2 ounce container and can’t be allowed”. Wow!! Not “that cotainer may be too large” or “check the size of that container” but “That’s a 3.2 ounce container and can’t be allowed”. Don’t even try to tell me they don’t have rigorous training on all the most pressing threats to our security.

    The supervisor came over and personally removed the offending jar and took it to a safe area to dispose of it. I am persuaded SOMEBODY avoided spending $65.00 on skin care.

  • Miami510

    Two items:
    1. Who are the 6% of readers who feel the TSA is “JUSTIFIED” in damaging property. They must work for the TSA!
    2. To the person who wrote about doing the paperwork and checking a starter pistol. Can you tell us more? From what I’ve read, the checked luggage cannot be zipper closed, and the starter pistol must be declared on a special form, and must be in an internal, locked container within the luggage. Have you any further information. Also, I understand the advantage of this is the luggage gets some sort of special handling and, while it will be xrayed, it never gets opened.

  • ExplorationTravMag

    TSA is such a mess, but they do this because they can. There are no consequences, no over sight and the very people they wreak havoc on have no recourse.

    My son came home for Christmas leave and they got the Trifecta with him…

    They broke a key off his BRAND NEW laptop, they broke the TSA approved lock on his suitcase AND, somehow, lost his $140 combat boots he’d bought right before the trip (read: never been worn).

    He puts copies of his orders in every bag he has, whether he’s carrying it or checking it, and they even managed to lose the copies of his orders in his checked bag, his carry-on AND his laptop bag.

    Also, his laptop bag is one of those TSA approved ones that lays flat and they still made him take his laptop out and put it on the belt. We replaced his boots (he’s only an E-1 and after buying Christmas presents, he was pretty broke) but it cost him another $75 to get the key fixed on his laptop.

    I think TSA looks for opportunities like this to jerk people around and we, the traveling public, have no choice but to submit.

  • “This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

    -Frederick Douglass, 1857

  • 75 years old, new knee, a weapon in her CANE? How stupid are these people? I travel with a collapsible cane all the time just in case I need it for long walks and NOBODY in 150 airport checks has even looked twice at it. Actually, this is beyond stupid and action should be taken against the agent.

  • Daisiemae

    Or the courts actually charge you with a crime.

  • Charles

    I’m one of them and I don’t work for the TSA. The question clearly said “ever”. If they see something suspicious on the xray of a bag, they are going to have to inspect it. Suppose they see the faint outline of something that looks like a gun, but they don’t see anything in the bag. They may have to rip out the lining to find something. They may have to break a lock to get into a bag in checked luggage. Now, these occurrences should be very rare, but the question said “ever” and that can happen. That does not justify the things the article is talking about, of course.

  • mememe

    “Is the TSA ever justified in damaging property in its effort to protect us from terrorists?”

    How can anybody say “no” to this question. What if TSA scans a bag and finds a bomb in the bag. But the bag is locked and not with a proper TSA lock. Are people seriously saying it’s not okay for the TSA to force that bag open????? Insane. I mean, literally, insane. Only a crazy person would say the TSA can NEVER damage a bag.

  • LeeAnneClark

    They’re not fired or rotated because the TSA DOESN’T CARE about us, the passengers they are supposed to be serving. They are a government works program for the otherwise-unemployable. Given the strata of society they are recruiting from, it is inevitable that they are going to end up with a large percentage of employees who are uneducated, low-IQ,emotionally stunted bullies who become drunk with the first power over others they’ve ever tasted. They can’t get jobs anywhere else, and the TSA will hire almost anyone (with admittedly minimal background screening). Who ELSE is going to take these jobs?

  • mememe, yes, because the TSA has found so many bombs.

    Sounds like you watch too many cheesy action flicks.

  • LeeAnneClark

    mememe, name ONE instance in which the TSA found a bomb. ONE.

    Oops! Can’t, can you? That’s because they never have. Nor have they ever found a terrorist. Not one. Oh, they’ve found all manner of innocuous technician’s tools and weapon replicas (including a handbag with a leather embossing of a gun…which they confiscated, of course, because goshdarnit, it looked scary). And they even occasionally find an actual weapon, the vast majority of which could not have been used to take down a plane, and with no evidence whatsoever that the carrier had any ill intent. And they have confiscated untold millions of tubes of toothpaste, bottles of expensive perfume, and cupcakes.

    But a bomb? Not one. That’s because there ARE no scawy tewwowists trying to sneak bombs on planes with the intent to blow up Americans.

    How do we know this? Ask yourself this question: if there are so many terrorists hell-bent on attacking air travelers, why hasn’t one walked up to a TSA checkpoint filled with long lines of passengers, and blown himself up? He would easily take out hundreds of Americans and dozens of blue-shirted TSA clerks, and all without having to sneak through the checkpoint, or have his junk touched by a TSA infidel.

    What? It hasn’t happened? Oh, well then, I guess all the terrorists are just not satisfied with blowing up people AT the checkpoint…they are singularly obsessed with getting the bomb ON THE PLANE. Strange obsession, but I guess that fits your world view, huh?

    Stop watching so much TV.

  • mszabo

    For that matter wouldn’t a garrote be a perfectly legal carry on item? Or would nylon fishing line be required to be in your checked luggage?

  • Roger Miller

    Hmmm… I have never had to remove my noise cancelling headphones.

  • ExplorationTravMag

    “You can bail water 24/7, and no matter how good you are at not sinking, you still have a hole in your boat.” -Kelli Jae Baeli, Crossing Paths.

    Futility is still futility, no matter how much righteous indignation you have. TSA doesn’t respond to damaged, stolen or lost things so, really, what’s the use? And to steal my son’s combat boots is beyond reprehensible. The presence of his military orders, right on top of his stuff, shows he’s a member of the military and they took his (expensive) boots, not because they’re not permitted but because they could.

    My son was so proud of these boots, having bought them with his first paycheck out of BMT and to have them taken like they were was a hard lesson for an 18-year-old kid to learn. He’s PCSing next week to Wright Patterson AFB; he’s being stationed at the Air & Space Intelligence Center as a Cyber Security Specialist, and, no, I’m not proud of him at all. ;-) and is mailing a trunk filled with the stuff he doesn’t want lost, stolen or broken by TSA, to include all his uniforms and accessories, to get there roughly the same day he does. (And since he’s PCSing on orders, he gets a form from TMO and it doesn’t cost him a thing)

    But then, we have a president who doesn’t give a rat’s behind about the military, why should the people who work for him care more than he?

  • ExplorationTravMag

    It’s really just another claim for them to ignore.

    I don’t know how many claims HAVE been filed (I read somewhere it’s something like 3 per 100,000 passengers), nor how many are actually fulfilled but I’m pretty sure they ignore most of them, if the complaints posted on travel boards like this one are an indicator.

  • cjr001

    If they’re telling you that, then somebody is more than likely looking for a chance to steal your stuff.

    The only device you definitively need to take out is a laptop.

  • DReinig, they make sh*t up. They don’t follow the official rules and make up new ones on the spot. And as cjr001 says, they’re also looking to steal your stuff.

  • mememe

    You all totally miss the point. I’m not saying that there’s ever been a good reason for them to damage a suitcase. (I’m not saying there hasn’t been, either. I really don’t know.) But if they ever have a good reasons to suspect that there is something seriously dangerous in an illegally locked suitcase, they should absolutely be able to damage it. I don’t see how this is even debatable.

  • An “illegally locked suitcase”??

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Well said. Awfully hard to feel sorry for the TSA, but when I read articles like this where legitimate problems like breaking insulin pumps get thrown in with trivialities like somebody’s zipper was broken on what was probably a half worn out suitcase, my eyes roll a bit. I take pretty good care of my stuff and I’ve had zippers break on numerous occasions.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    It’s a weird sort of counter-logic being used. They’re scared to death of being accused of profiling which leads to a de-facto sort of profiling of people who are the least likely to be threats. Because if those people are being searched it proves they’re not playing favorites. I sometimes wonder what would happen if there was an old nun in line with 60 mean-looking guys wearing matching paramilitary garb. My guess is the nun would be the one pulled aside for extra screening.

  • jpp42

    The reason that iPads are allowed is because they aren’t really user-serviceable and there are fewer places inside one to squirrel explosives (not saying it couldn’t be done by a dedicated terrorist). But a laptop typically has a removeable battery, CD-ROM drive, hard drive, panels for accessing the interior to replace memory, etc – all places to put nefarious devices. Putting this multi-layered device separately gives them fewer layers to “look through” when trying to determine if something suspicious is inside. There are so many layers already they want it to be reviewed on its own: an iPad has many fewer layers.

  • MarkieA

    So it’s the cost or importance of the item that matters? Not the fact that these folks can damage your property with no accountability whatsoever?

  • MarkieA

    Are you making a distinction between examining a suspicious item and damaging it? Sure, they are fully justified in examining ANYTHING. But, except for the non-TSA lock, I can think of no reason to damage any item. And it’s especially reprehensible to damage someone’s stuff and hide behind the red tape to avoid reimbursement.

  • Daisiemae

    Oh, but John Pistole so loves layers!

  • Mundane Lustrator

    But usually if a zipper tab is broken, it is because gets caught on something or hit by another piece of luggage, not because a gov’t employee opened the bag. One is items reacting upon items in the normal course of travel. The other is one person damaging another person’s stuff.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    That’s a good question, mszabo!

  • Mundane Lustrator

    Never had to remove my headphones. According to an April 2012 TSA blog post (yeah, I know the screeners ignore the rules), you shouldn’t have to take out your netbook or tablet either.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    Since the maximum allowable size is 3.4 ounces, you’re right, they stole it.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    If they get to the point of ripping out lining, they better get real law enforcement because at that point if they’re wrong and intentionally destroyed someone’s personal property, there’s no doubt they are responsible.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    Let’s not make this a political argument. The TSA destroys and steals items of passengers across the spectrum.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    Well, the TSA says it’s about actual size, or dimensions, of the product, not removable parts. What’s your source?

  • The maximum allowable size is 100 ml, because 100ml is a very common package size for countries using the metric system. 3.2 ounces is less than 100 ml. Your wife’s face cream was stolen by the TSA, even though it was packaged in a permitted size container. Please do file a complaint with both the TSA and your Congressional represntatives.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    No, one is careless disregard while the other is either an accident or something simply wearing out. There’s a gigantic difference between the two. The first needs to be addressed; the second is always going to be a byproduct of any system where bags get inspected.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    It simply muddies the waters too much to try and equate accidents that are bound to happen with gross negligence. That’s the problem with most of these TSA articles–they’re despised so much the comments become a huge pile-on. That’s therapeutic to some degree but it also leads to wildly illogical comparisons. People should be going to jail for theft and being fired for breaking sensitive equipment. But if a zipper breaks when somebody is doing their job and inspecting a bag, that’s simply part of the process.

    Should there be compensation in cases like that? Maybe, but best of luck proving the TSA broke it as opposed to it being broken during the horrific handling the bags get from the airlines.

  • Complaining through official channels is meaningless, as the GAO also discovered:

  • MarkieA

    Again, it sounds as if you’re saying that if it’s an “accident” TSA bears no responsibility to reimburse. Accidents are, I agree, unintentional. But the person who causes damage in an accident still must take responsibility for the damage. TSA is ducking this responsibility with red tape and bureaucracy.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    I thought there was some proof that the TSA specifically broke the zipper tabs, and it wasn’t random damage during transportation.

  • ExplorationTravMag

    You think stealing a military member’s boots is “political”? The difference is… My son had to turn in a theft claim to the military and we are being reimbursed. That’s YOUR tax dollars being spent to buy some TSA agent a pair of expensive combat boots.

    Political? No. Taking advantage of a low-ranking, low-pay military member? Yes. And if you don’t see the difference, I feel sorry for you.

  • Cathy Mathews

    I believe that the TSA needs to be accountable. Accidents happen, but the damage needs to be documented and reported on the spot, and the victim should be compensated for damages. Agents who continually damage items need to be disciplined or terminated.

  • Sue

    My “favorite” experience was when TSA sliced open the outside pocket of my checked luggage. The zipper had been secured with a cheap plastic zip tie, but they took a knife to the bag and made a large cut that can not be repaired. All this to get at my week’s worth of dirty socks and underwear. My damage claim to TSA was rejected.

  • anzpom

    This isn’t just the TSA either: when I was being scanned in Manchester Airport (England), the security person carelessly threw the tray containing my laptop down the table. When I reacted with “Hey! Be careful” I was approached by an armed policeman asking me if there was a problem. Of course there was. Of course I said no.

    The arrogance and carelessness of employees and the wide-ranging inconsistencies in checks across (and within) countries shows me that these so-called “security checks” are just a deterrent to travel

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