The banned items TSA security fails to detect will blow your mind

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By Christopher Elliott

Did you hear about the guy who tried to spirit a .40 caliber rifle past Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents in Baltimore? He blamed his mother for packing the weapon in his carry-on bag. True story.

Then again, maybe he was one of the thousands of air travelers defying the TSA by smuggling a weapon on board. After all, it was also the 26th firearm confiscated at BWI this year. Makes you wonder how much the TSA security fails to detect, doesn’t it?

The TSA confiscated a record number of guns in 2022. The agency reportedly found 6,301 firearms, more than 88% of which were loaded. This number surpasses the previous record of 5,972 firearms detected in 2021.

If you’re worried about how much the TSA screeners miss, there’s a survey that puts the issue into troubling perspective. The research, conducted by Stratos Jet Charters, found that a shocking 88% of passengers smuggled prohibited items onto domestic flights. Among the most popular items: marijuana, alcohol and unauthorized weapons like the .40 caliber rifle Mom packed.

“One of the biggest surprises in our survey revealed that 15.2 percent of men and 8.5 percent of women admitted to bringing weapons or ammunition on board a plane,” says Stratos spokeswoman Stephanie Buzano. “Having the small Swiss Army knife that you use to clean your nails is a minor infraction; however, possessing a firearm, ammunition, or long knife is an entirely different matter.”

Here’s a full list of prohibited items, in case you’re not sure.

The TSA, created after 9/11 to protect America’s transportation systems, is mostly focused on airport security. It has a long record of failing security audits. Travelers admit to regularly testing the TSA’s resolve. But the real problem, the research suggests, is that more and more passengers think they can get away with it.

All of which makes you ask: Who else thinks a plane would make an easy target?

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Yes, TSA security fails — and yes, travelers are defying the TSA

When it comes to airport security, TSA screeners miss a lot of contraband. Back in 2015, internal tests showed TSA employees missed an eye-popping 95% of prohibited items, which led to the “reassignment” of the agency’s head. It’s unclear if the agency has repeated those tests and, if so, whether it now catches more contrabond. But what is clear is that the Stratos Jets numbers are comparable.

It is also suggested by the statement that the likelyhood of getting caught with a prohibited item is so low that they’re willing to take a chance. But mostly, air travelers find the TSA’s porous security unsettling. I spoke with several air travelers who admitted to inadvertently packing illegal items. Discovering them later led to a disturbing realization about the TSA’s capabilities.

Corey Law accidentally packed a wine opener, with a corkscrew and a sharp blade, on a flight from Charleston, S.C., to New York. Screeners found it on the return flight. They allowed corkscrews, but not sharp blades.

“I was extremely embarrassed since I had completely forgotten about it – but then I realized that I had made it through completely unchecked out of JFK,” says Law, who works at a communications company in New York. “It definitely made me nervous about how stringent the TSA is.”

Michelle Ligon, who works for a tourism agency in Boone, N.C., accidentally packed a pocket knife on a flight from Charlotte to Fort Myers, Fla. The screeners never found it in her hand luggage.

“Needless to say, I’m not a fan of TSA, nor do I have much confidence in their ability to keep travelers safe,” she says.

Accidentally taking banned items through TSA security

Chris Moreno, a retired flight attendant from Lakewood, Colo., echoes her sentiments. Moreno has packed contraband in the past, too, and the TSA didn’t find it.

“I have loads of stories,” she says. “But once I had visited my mother-in-law and took her a pear to eat. I also took a knife to cut it up with. After sharing it, I put the 4-inch, sharp knife back in my purse and never took it out.”

She commuted between Washington and Chicago with the knife in her bag for weeks. The TSA never discovered the blade.

Bottom line: If we are to believe these numbers, TSA’s vaunted 20 layers of airport security are lacking a layer to two. But a closer look at what people do suggests several even more disturbing trends just as the holiday travel season begins.

You won’t believe what passengers admit to bringing on the plane and what TSA security fails to detect

A closer look at the Stratos Jets research reveals how inept air travelers think the TSA is, despite the agency’s many social media trophies. Consider what happens when screeners discover a firearm. It triggers a loud alarm, and TSA calls airport police. TSA does not have the power to arrest passengers but hands them over to law enforcement for questioning. Travelers may face state or local charges, and the TSA can also levy civil penalties up to $13,000.

Unauthorized prescription drugs rank high on the list, too, with 25% of men and 19% of women admitting to smuggling medical contraband on the plane.

Another common smuggled item: banned alcohol.

While TSA allows passengers to bring alcoholic beverages of between 24 to 70 percent alcohol content in carry-on baggage as long as it’s in mini-bottles, the bigger bottles and the ones containing stronger drink are a no-no. But 12% of men and 8% of women admitted to packing it anyway.

Why are passengers playing TSA Roulette with airport security?

But why are passengers playing a dangerous and potentially expensive game of TSA Roulette?

When asked why they packed these illegal items, more than one-third said they “just wanted to have it” on the trip. Apparently, they know TSA screeners miss a lot. The pollsters didn’t ask about items packed accidentally, but if they had, it probably would have ranked in the top tier. As a consumer advocate, I handle most of the TSA cases where passengers pack forbidden items without realizing that they are not allowed.

I admit it’s happened to me. I’ve accidentally packed a knife, corkscrew, toothpaste, and shampoo on flights. Often, they’ve made it through.

It’s easy to get confused by the TSA’s list of banned items. They include liquids and gels as well as an assortment of oddities like insecticide. To date, no aircraft has been bombed using shampoo or bug spray, a fact well known to most air travelers. So it’s likely they’ll defy the ban — or just not know about it.

But the Stratos Jets survey seems to underscore a widespread fear among travelers. Airport security is notoriously lax, and air travelers have always packed illegal stuff by accident. TSA screeners miss a lot. Now passengers are openly — and successfully — defying the rules.

Maybe it’s just a matter of time before travelers with darker motives do the same thing, with devastating results.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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