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Gone in 60 seconds

Dealing with nail-clippers, chain saws and killer tomatoes aloft. And why your prized possessions are getting confiscated by airports' "surplus property" programmes.

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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THERE ARE SOME ITEMS YOU MUST NEVER take onboard an aircraft. Airline check-in counters carry graphic depictions of offending items, with big red crosses. These might include knives, scissors, axes, mothers-in-law, and that terror of modern aviation, the nail-clipper. I can understand the travel imperative of carrying an axe onboard. Think of all the times you could have hacked your way through a throng of no-frills flag-waving tourists jamming the aisle to the toilet. But a nail-clipper? What deranged person brings this into an airline cabin?

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As a frequent flier my nails are now a trendy six inches long, but at least the captain is secure in the knowledge that there’s no prospect at all of a violent ear tweak with a sturdy made-in-China toenail-clipper if the flight does not take off on time. The list of banned items is rather tame though it has been expanded, sensibly, to include fireworks, automatic weapons, bows and arrows, ammunition, electric cattle prods, clubs of all kinds, hockey sticks, stun guns, lawnmowers and “penetration objects”. Hold off on that Viagra.

How would you react if a fellow passenger opened a pack of peanuts marked for "indoor and outdoor use only"?

Also on the list, reassuringly, are transformer robot toys that mutate into guns with a few twists and shakes. These nifty gadgets are enough to bring an average pilot to his knees, especially if the bearer is blonde and buxom. Yet, some rather hazardous items have completely escaped scrutiny. For example, how would you react if your neighbour popped open a packet of peanuts marked, “For indoor and outdoor use only”? These packets do exist. Or take the Sears hairdryer that clearly says, “Do not use while sleeping”, or the Japanese food processor that darkly cautions it is “not to be used for the other use”. And there’s the Swedish chain saw with this terrifying warning: “Do not attempt to stop chain with your hands or genitals.”

Despite the best efforts of the hard-working folks at the US National Transportation Security Administration, people continue to attempt to cart nail-clippers, scissors and assorted stuff onboard. Items have had to be confiscated en masse leaving NTSA staff the monumental and thankless task of clipping their own fingernails to polished, rounded, perfection while business travellers stalk the airways with fingers like talons.

The Koreans are tough on this sort of carry-on cart-around nonsense. The South Korean customs declaration form includes the following frank questions: “Are you bringing into Korea pornographic materials (books, CDs, photos), illicit drugs such as opium, heroin, internationally protected endangered animals…?”

In various Asian countries you’ll be asked about your race. I usually put down “100m hurdles”. Specifying occupation on the arrival form can be a tad problematic too. In some countries, especially those fond of uniforms, journalists and chatty sorts may find the hospitality overwhelming – and disruptive of deadlines – when they end up feted state guests, like Ms Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar. In any case who the heck wants to be a journalist? It’s a thankless profession. Working in India as a reporter I was told by friends that as a brilliant, respected, intellectual and sweaty pillar of democracy, I would now command absolutely no dowry at my marriage. Profession? Just write in “Military Dictator”. That should get the line moving.

I didn't realise my shaving foam was surplus property. Gone in 60 seconds. But you can lug along a moose head with antlers

Stuff is confiscated all the time. La Guardia Airport in New York alone nets around 7,000 items each day. Collectively, US airports account for tons of confiscated knives, scissors, wine openers, Swiss knives and barber scissors. These amazing goodies are great fun for airport bureaucrats but even they get bored. And when that happens, the stuff gets sold, by the pound, to schools, and to hospitals. Embattled US airports are increasingly turning to eBay to get rid of their inventory before the next load of genital-slicing chain saws come in. If you’ve had your nail-clipper impounded, get on eBay quick.

There’s profit in this. So much so, there’s a formal name for this airport shakedown – the “surplus property program”. I didn’t realise my shaving foam was surplus property, but it was. Gone in 60 seconds. While nail-clippers are a no-no, American Airlines will on domestic US flights permit you to cart around “sports equipment” – like antlers weighing up to 70lbs. Unfortunately – for the moose – it travels as checked-in baggage.

Nasty things can happen aloft when THINGS THAT SHOULD NEVER BE IN THE AIR find their way into the cabin. Everyday chemicals may combine in your luggage with unpredictable consequences. For example, your toothpaste could mix with the haemorrhoid cream and shaving foam to create a thick toxic sludge that might, well, greatly impress your date. The Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority reports an explosion blew out a rear seat of a small aircraft on account of watermelons reacting badly to depressurization. If you spot a large tomato aloft, stay calm, peel and eat it. This will disarm the device. Nail-clipper? RUN.

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