Loose change at airports may go to upgrade military lounges

WASHINGTON — A quarter here, a penny there and pretty soon all the loose change left in plastic bins at Transportation Security Administration airport checkpoints adds up to real money, about $531,000 in fiscal 2012.

The coins not claimed by passengers are supposed to pay for aviation security, though only about $6,500 has been spent as of March 1, according to a House committee report. Rather than sitting unused, lawmakers say they’d rather it go for high-definition televisions and free snacks for veterans at airport lounges.

“Travelers’ lost change is unappropriated dollars that should be put to good use,” Florida Republican Jeff Miller said at a House Homeland Security Committee meeting in October.

The TSA would be required to give future unclaimed cash to groups that run airport lounges dedicated to active-duty U.S. military personnel, veterans and their families under Miller’s bill that the House is scheduled to vote on this week.

The USO, by running airport lounges, is the only organization that currently would qualify for the funds set aside in the legislation. The TSA estimates that passengers have left behind $2.2 million in change in the past five years.

Miller, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, is also co-chairman of the USO Congressional Caucus.

The United Service Organizations is best known for sending celebrities such as comedian Bob Hope and World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. wrestler John Cena to far-flung military bases to entertain U.S. troops. Its main service is supporting and encouraging uniformed troops while aiding military families.

The nonprofit group operates lounges in 45 U.S. airports, the largest at international facilities such as Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, Dallas/Fort Worth and Baltimore-Washington.

Those USO rooms are similar to the airport lounges operated by airlines including United Continental Holdings’ United Airlines and Delta Air Lines. The USO boasts more camouflage fatigues and fewer three-piece suits.

The military center at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, a frequent stop for service members heading home from Afghanistan, is typical. A 72-inch flat-panel television sits in front of rows of plush blue chairs.

The lounge has a free snack bar with coffee, soda and candy bars and frozen treats. Many items, like ice cream bars from Nestle SA, are donated. Most centers have free Internet service and phones to call home.

There’s even a room set up where service members can pick out a children’s book, read it aloud while being recorded, and then have the DVD recording sent home to their kids.

For some jet-lagged service-members, BWI Airport in Maryland is the second or third layover from Afghanistan on their way home. The lounge has a sleeping room with chairs that recline flat and a free wake-up call so they don’t miss their connecting flights.

BWI’s 5,000-square foot USO lounge, the third-largest in the U.S., costs about $228,000 a year to operate, according to USO officials at the airport. After hosting about 82,000 travelers last year, the BWI center may serve 85,000 this year, said John Falin, who manages the BWI site and four other USO centers in the region.

“What our service members do is so important and we just want to honor them and make them feel important,” he said in an interview at the airport.

Air Force Maj. Nathaniel Karrs, his wife, Amanda, and son, Evan, 10, sat in the front row while the large TV showed the CBS game show “The Price is Right.”

“It’s perfect,” Karrs said as his family waited for a flight to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. “One last place to call home.”

The TSA collects about $500,000 a year in coins that travelers empty from their pockets into bins and buckets then forget to reclaim after walking through security screening.

The agency “makes every effort to reunite passengers with items left at the checkpoint,” TSA spokesman Ross Feinstein said in an e-mail that. “However, there are instances where loose change or other items are left behind and unclaimed.”

TSA doesn’t comment on pending legislation, Feinstein said. The White House hasn’t formally supported or opposed the bill.

“Any pocket change we would get from this would go to helping out troops and their families,” USO spokeswoman Gena Fitzgerald said. “If this passes, we’ll be thrilled – not just us, but the troops that we serve will be thrilled.”


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