TSA Shares Blame With United for Fictitious Ban on Comic Books in Checked Bags

The agency, known for its puzzling decrees, blurred the line between a suggestion and an order.


Adi Chappo on Twitter

Fans returning from last weekend's Comic-Con International in San Diego were dismayed to learn that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) had banned books from checked luggage, forcing them to hastily remove their precious convention purchases and cram them into their carry-on bags. But the TSA says it never issued such a mandate, and United Airlines, which told "Comic-Con Attendees" in no uncertain terms to "remove all books from checked bags," says it misunderstood what was merely a suggestion.

As tempting as it may be to blame the passenger-dragging, bunny-killing carrier for this gratuitous hassle, the TSA bears a large share of the responsibility. "TSA recommended keeping comic books in carry-on bags, but not required," United tweeted yesterday. "We misunderstood this instruction and regret any inconvenience." The airline apparently was referring to a July 2016 blog post in which the TSA offered this advice to attendees at last year's Comic-Con:

Pack items such as stacks of brochures and assorted comic books in your carry-on bag. Place them in a bin prior to sending them through the x-ray. Packing these items in checked bags often causes alarms leading to bag searches which can cause a significant slowdown in the screening process leading to delays and bags possibly missing their flights.

If you're not attending Comic-Con International, this guidance applies to any collector or attendee of any comic-con.

The TSA did not explain why comic books cause alarms. But in fairness to United, this "guidance" sounds pretty firm, and it is just the sort of head-scratching dictate we have come to expect from the TSA. The "tip" was explicitly aimed at Comic-Con attendees, which may explain why United tweeted on Sunday that "the restriction on checking comic books applies to all airlines operating out of San Diego this weekend and is set by the TSA."

On Monday, responding to complaints from Comic-Con travelers, the TSA tweeted that "there are no TSA restrictions on checking comic books or any other types of books." By way of elaboration, it linked to a June 28 blog post that sought to "close the book on book screening rumors." That post said passengers do not have to "remove books from [their] carry-on bags prior to sending [the] bag through the X-ray." But the post did not address the TSA's 2016 instruction to the contrary, and it said nothing about whether books are allowed in checked luggage.

Furthermore, the "book screening rumors" were started by the TSA itself, which was "testing the removal of books at two airport locations." After TSA agents began instructing travelers at those airports to remove books from their carry-on bags for separate screening, it seems, people surmised that the TSA had begun requiring that books be removed from carry-on bags for separate screening—an entirely reasonable conclusion, more like an observed fact than a rumor. And if this was merely an experiment at two airports, why did the TSA, in a 2016 post that remains online and uncorrected, tell passengers to "place [comic books] in a bin prior to sending them through the x-ray"?

So yes, United should have double-checked with the TSA before telling travelers they could not put comic books in their checked bags. If the airline had simply looked at the TSA's list of prohibited items, which includes things that are allowed in checked luggage but not in carry-ons and possibly vice versa (although I did not notice any in the latter category), it would have seen that books are not officially banned from either. But the TSA invited the confusion about comic books by blurring the line between a suggestion and an order and by routinely forcing passengers to engage in arbitrary rituals aimed at creating the illusion of security.