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Bellingham food bank gains checkpoint discards


We've all observed it at the airport security checkpoint: a fellow traveler throwing away an unopened bottle of water or any other liquid or gel that's not allowed in carry-on baggage.

Since the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) restriction was implemented in 2006, Debra Ethier has seen this play out every day at Bellingham International Airport, where she serves as Horizon Air's customer services manager. Earlier this year, she decided to do something about it.

In April, Ethier launched a partnership with the local TSA to allow passengers to donate their unopened liquids and gels to the Bellingham Food Bank rather than have them thrown away. These days, travelers see a bin for these items prior to showing their ID and boarding pass to the TSA agent at the entry to the security lanes.

"It was heartbreaking to see so many items going to waste when they could have gone to a better use," Ethier says. "You're not necessarily excited to be throwing away something you had just bought, but if you know it's going to a worthy cause, it might put a smile on your face. It's also good for the TSA agents who often get the brunt of people's anger when they have to throw something away, and definitely good for the people who rely on the food bank."

Since starting the project, Ethier has collected several large boxes of unopened containers of juice, water, toiletries (which the food bank donates to local shelters), and some food items, such as peanut butter. In May, she delivered 241 pounds worth of items to the food bank.

In theory, the plan is quite simple, but it is a little more complicated in practice.
First of all, the passengers themselves - not the TSA agents - must put the items in the bin.

"The TSA has a rule that if agents touch an item that can't be taken through security, they're required to throw it out," Ethier says. "So we make it clear that if passengers want to donate something, they have to do it themselves before going through the checkpoint."

It also requires constant monitoring on the part of Horizon.

"Twice a day, we go through the bin to make sure only appropriate items are being put in there," Ethier says. "Sometimes we'll find garbage and some opened bottles, so we have to get rid of those. It's a simple task and well worth it."

This isn't the first time Ethier has taken the initiative to boost the local food bank. Since 2008, she's spearheaded an annual baby food drive at the airport, enlisting the help of co-workers, the Port of Bellingham, the TSA and other airport tenants.

"The need for donations at food banks across the country is high, so being able to do our part really makes a difference," she says.

This story is also posted online at http://www.alaskaair.com/newsroom/ .

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