LEE COUNTY, Fla. - Specially trained agents with the Transportation Security Administration stay busy at Southwest Florida International Airport. Each day, they scan thousands of passengers and bags for potentially dangerous items.
WINK News received special permission to go behind-the-scenes at RSW to see just how many of these dangerous items are left behind at TSA checkpoints. What we saw surprised even us.
In just one month last year, TSA agents collected over 700 knives - including more than 100 with blades longer than three inches. Two loaded guns were also taken, as was a cane purchased at a flea market. The owner said he didn't realize it held a two-foot long blade.
Items such as these are called "voluntarily abandoned property," because many passengers decide to turn it over to TSA rather than step out of line and take it back to their car.
Another strange find: a knife with a six-inch blade made entirely out of bone.
"Our agents found that one," says Robert Cohen, federal security director for Southwest Florida Int'l. "The metal detectors alone wouldn't detect a bone."
In each case, it was determined the passengers involved didn't realize the objects were in their bags, although any passenger caught carrying a firearm can still face serious charges.
"We look at the intent," Cohen says. "Was their intent to conceal it? In 99.9 percent of the cases, no."
After seeing everything, we wondered what happened to it. RSW recently cleared out 300 pounds of abandoned property.
While guns are turned over to authorities for disposal, we learned thousands of other items - including knives - can end up back on the streets.
TSA guidelines allow most abandoned items to be donated to state agencies. But WINK News found thousands of pounds of abandoned property from Florida airports - doesn't stay in Florida.
We tracked it to Arkansas, Kentucky and Alabama. Every few months, each of the three states sends a crew to Florida to gather tons of TSA property. It's brought back and turned over to the state-run surplus.
From there, much of it is sold or auctioned off.
"We've been doing this for six years," says Shane Bailey, surplus director for the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs. "We thought the material would eventually start declining, but it hasn't."
Bailey says Florida contributes to 90% of all TSA property obtained by the state. The remaining 10% comes from Alabama's own airports. And Bailey says he's seen it all.
"Swiss army knives come in by the thousands," he says. "It just never ends. It's continuous."
Bailey estimates the state of Alabama is able to make up to $20,000 each year on the property received from Florida's airports.
"It's not a big money maker," Bailey says. But it all goes back into the surplus to keep the doors open and salaries paid, he says.
Arkansas and Kentucky operate in a similar manner. And each state says what it doesn't sell, it donates to local organizations and charities.
"Scissors are popular," Bailey says. "There's no reason why schools in Alabama should not have scissors. Our volunteer fire departments come in and get the tools.... Our impoverished charities will come in and collect things like utensils to use in their kitchens."
Why is Florida missing out on all of this? WINK News contacted the Department of Management Services in Tallahassee, which oversees the state's surplus, called the Bureau of Federal Property Assistance. After repeated requests for information, a spokesperson referred our questions to the General Services Administration in Washington, D.C.
The GSA told us it's up to Florida to decide whether it wants the property.
Bailey says the state had the chance several years ago, and passed.
"Florida chose not to participate just due to the labor intensity," he says.
It's unclear how much Florida could make from TSA's voluntarily abandoned property. It's also not known just how much it would cost the state to collect and sort it. However, an employee within Florida's surplus says since WINK News raised the issue, state officials are looking at the numbers.
Back at Southwest Florida Int'l, Cohen says there's a very easy way to keep your belongings with you when you travel.
"Just pack it in your checked luggage," he says.