Every year, passengers are obliged to surrender millions of items at airport security checkpoints, some with high monetary or sentimental value. Kimmo Collander provides readers with practical ideas on how to deal with the issue so that both security operators and passengers are satisfied.
At Frankfurt Airport, according to Lisa Nauman, spokesperson for the airport, annually “approximately 7,000 valuable items are taken into storage at a passenger’s request”. What is perhaps even more surprising is that, “the volume of items that remains unclaimed totals four to five cubic metres”. Similarly, Lisbeth Dønnum Jensen, quality controller at Avinor in Norway, notes that, “in 2018, a total of 818kg of cosmetics and 1,998kg of sharp items such as knives and scissors were removed from passengers at Oslo Airport.” The airport served just under 30 million passengers during that time.
They took my knife. Is it gone forever?
Generally, the answer is yes! At most airports, passengers are given the following options at hand luggage security checkpoints:
- To take the item to the check-in desk and include it in checked baggage or a box provided by the airport;
- If escorted to the airport, to hand over the item to them for safe-keeping;
- To store the item in your vehicle (if it is parked outside); or,
- If the item is very important or valuable, to take a later flight
Unfortunately, for the vast majority of passengers, these are not options: check-in may have closed; they may not have checked luggage; there may be no friends seeing them off; nor a car parked nearby; nor the possibility of rescheduling their flight. Or there is simply no time to make alternative arrangements, forcing them to surrender the item.
“…in 2018, a total of 818kg of cosmetics and 1,998kg of sharp items such as knives and scissors were removed from passengers at Oslo Airport…”
Some airports, including some in the US, Germany, UK, Finland and Sweden, offer a service allowing passengers to reclaim a surrendered item. Operators organising delivery include Cotio, Airport Mailers, Mailsafe Express, Post & Fly and MailandFly.
According to Lisa Naumann at Frankfurt Airport, a passenger can either declare a waiver of ownership or express a wish to have the item stored at the airport. At the security check, prohibited items are stored in a locked box, which is emptied once a day. After a brief storage period, the items are sent for disposal. The airport also offers to keep the items at the baggage storage for up to six weeks for a fee, or the items can be sent to the passenger by post.
The procedure is slightly different for checked baggage. At Frankfurt Airport, all items exceeding a value of EUR 50 are handed over to the lost and found office or customs warehouse. The luggage is stored for 28 days, and if the items are not collected by then, they will be disposed of. Items with a value below EUR 50 are disposed of immediately.
If confiscated items like drills, knives and tools are considered to be of a higher value or are not collected by the deadline, they may be put up for auction via an auction house.
In Helsinki, all items removed at the hand luggage checkpoint estimated to be of a higher value than EUR 10, and all items removed from checked luggage, are tagged with a Cotio sticker. Passengers can order delivery online using the unique alpha-numeric code found on the receipt. Items are then packed and shipped to the customer within a few days. All removed items are stored for a minimum of 30 days.
“…Avinor and Finavia donate empty bottles to the Red Cross…”
At most airports, passengers have no possibility to retrieve items removed from their hand luggage or checked baggage, although in some cases items allowed in the cabin may be brought to them to the gate.
Customer and Staff Experience
At the hand luggage security control, the passenger encounters a security officer who they may perceive as acting as a representative of the airport operator. If the encounter is unpleasant for the passenger, it can leave a negative impression of the airport’s operations as a whole.
Placing luggage on the scanner’s conveyor belt, removing shoes and belts, undergoing a manual body search and a possible swipe test for dangerous or contraband items, together with concerns about missing flights increase passengers’ stress levels considerably.
Stress levels peak when an item is removed, causing the passenger surprise, embarrassment and sometimes even anger. The passenger may have a strong reaction, especially if the item has sentimental or emotional value.
Having an item removed from checked baggage is an even more unpleasant experience. The passenger is not present when it happens, so the situation cannot be explained. Airport personnel may have had to break the lock on the passenger’s suitcase and a stranger will have gone through their personal items.
Although the procedures for removing items from checked luggage are strictly regulated and the events are always registered and passengers notified in writing, reactions from passengers are more negative than at hand baggage checkpoints. The fact that, at least in theory, the passenger could be sued for including a prohibited item in their luggage serves only to make the experience more intrusive.
“…in Helsinki, all items removed at the hand luggage check point estimated to be of a higher value than EUR 10 and all items removed from checked luggage are tagged with a Cotio sticker…”
Personnel at security checkpoints must inform the customer that they are obliged to relinquish the forbidden item but that they also have the right to regain its possession later on if the service is available. Personnel must handle the situation in a friendly and professional manner. Additionally, the customer should not be pressurised into making hasty decisions, particularly if long queues are forming behind them, potentially causing additional stress.
To ensure customer satisfaction and uphold the passenger’s rights, the removed items must be registered and stored in such a way that they don’t get lost or damaged. The entire process from the removal of an item to its end location or return to its owner must be traceable. The passenger must be able to trust that the item they have given up will not fall into the wrong hands.
Special rules for the storage and handling of ammunition, firearms, knives and other weapons are defined in the legislation of different jurisdictions. If an item is illegal or strictly regulated (brass knuckles, throwing stars etc.), law enforcement should be involved at some stage of the process. Items of this type need to be stored safely and securely, separate from other items.
From the security personnel’s point of view, registering removed items must be a fast and reliable process. A secure but practical short-term storage area must be reserved for removed items adjacent to the security checkpoint. If the airport operator has decided to provide passengers with the opportunity to retrieve their removed items, relevant IT systems, customer care and storage solutions must be established outside the security area.
Once the removed items are transferred from the short-term storage area, responsibility for them may be handed over from the head of security control to the head of storage or a third actor. If an item is lost, details should be documented, including a record of responsible staff members. At the end of the maximum storage period, items are either destroyed or relocated, and the process is recorded in the information system.
Recycling Batteries, Bottles and Alcohol
Lithium ion batteries are the most frequently removed article at Helsinki Airport, with over half of items returned to passengers being power banks or batteries: “We have worked hard to find logistical solutions for lithium ion products,” says Cotio spokesperson, Kimmo Suominen. “Now we can ship these often high-value items practically anywhere in the world. The other option – pickup from our smart locker at the airport – has been very popular among returning travellers”. Likewise, in Frankfurt, Li-ion batteries are the most confiscated item. “In 2019, we removed 32,539 powerbanks and 4,257 e-cigarettes,” states Lisa Naumann.
“…in Frankfurt, Li-ion batteries are the most confiscated item …Most Li-ion batteries contain a notable amount of cobalt and other minerals like zinc, copper and manganese…”
Most Li-ion batteries contain a notable amount of cobalt and other minerals like zinc, copper and manganese. European airports are obliged to sort and recycle Li-ion batteries. Batteries that are removed from passengers in Helsinki are processed by Akkuser, which recycles batteries using its own Dry-Technology method. The outputs of the process are metal concentrates, which are delivered as raw material to metal refineries. The concentrate can also be used as raw material for fertiliser.
Lisbeth Jensen explains that all alcohol seized at Oslo Airport is dispatched to a company that reprocesses it for a range of uses. In countries with a deposit-based return system for beverage packages, bottles can be returned and the deposit cashed.
Surrendered items can be donated to charity. In the US, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) channels a portion of the items in its possession to governmental organisations, which either sell or use them. Avinor and Finavia donate empty bottles to the Red Cross. In addition, Finavia donates sellable items that have not been claimed by the end of the 30-day storage period to the Red Cross. Knives, Leatherman tools, powerbanks, unopened cosmetics and tools are valuable items that easily find new owners. From an environmental perspective, donating is by far a better option than recycling or disposal.
In the US, approximately 14 million items are taken from passengers each year, 80% being resold by state agencies and never returned to the traveller. While by law the TSA is not permitted to profit from abandoned property, other government agencies are. Agencies may dispose of objects at state-run surplus centres or online auction sites (e.g. eBay and GovDeals.com). Lower-value items are often given to charity or non-profit organisations that can use or sell them. However, these processes must be transparent, and passengers must be informed of the disposal of their possessions. Communications departments may wish to highlight the charities benefitting from the process, emphasising that the airport operator is carrying out its corporate/social responsibility with regards to people and the environment.
To err is human. When it comes to prohibited items, we should remember that anybody can forget a Swiss Army knife or powerbank in his or her bag Airport operators do not have to expect divinity; they can forgive passengers’ errors and give them a second chance to retrieve items which cannot be carried into the sterile zone and, at the same time, improve the customer experience. Surrendered objects that are not reclaimed can also have a good second life in the hands of the needy or they can be used as a resource instead of being dealt with as waste.
Kimmo Collander is the founder and the CEO of Cotio. Cotio is a Finnish company that has created a user-friendly service concept that facilitates the work of security officials at airports to administer surrendered prohibited items. For more information, see www.cotios.com
In designing a checkpoint, airports must consider the following questions.
1. From the passenger’s viewpoint
- How do you ensure your customer understands why an item is removed? Is information available in different languages as to why a certain item must be removed?
- What choices are given to the customer in terms of regaining possession of the removed item? Is it realistically possible for the customer to leave the checkpoint? Will the airline company accept the item as checked-in luggage?
- How is the customer informed of their right to regain possession of the removed item? Is the customer offered the option of regaining possession automatically, or do they have to initiate the request? How is communication enabled in case there is no common language? What kind of receipt does the customer receive?
- Does the customer know how long the removed item will be stored for? Will the customer receive contact details for the company handling returns?
- What kind of notice will the customer receive about an item removed from their checked luggage?
2. From the airport operator’s viewpoint
- How is the removal registered in the airport operator’s information system? How is the removed item identified and connected to its owner?
- Where are the removed items stored? Is that in close proximity to the security checkpoint? Is the storage area secure? Are different types of items stored differently? Do the stored items take up too much space or interfere with personnel operations?
- How are the storage units emptied? How is the emptying of storage units recorded?
3. Material flow perspective
- How is the responsibility for removed items divided? How is the location and moving of items documented?
- Is the storage area locked? Who has access to the storage area? How is the storage register for confiscated items maintained?
- Do hazardous substances have their own storage area in compliance with the relevant rules and regulations? Do personnel have the required permits for handling them?
- How are items returned to their owners? Can a customer personally retrieve an item from the storage area? Can items be shipped internationally? Does the airport have a retrieval point that is open around the clock? How are costs incurred by the returning of items handled? How does the customer cover their share of the costs?
- How is the storage, disposal and returning of guns, ammo, explosives and other strictly regulated material handled? How is the reporting to law enforcement arranged?
- How long are removed items kept in storage for? What happens to the items after the end of the storage period? Can the items be sold? Can the items be given to charity?