(NBC News) -- Frazzled and forgetful passengers left more than a half million dollars in spare change in the plastic bowls and bins at airport security checkpoints last year.
That's about $45,000 more than the amount left behind in 2011, according to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
What happens to all that money?
TSA makes "every effort to reunite passengers with items left at security checkpoints," said agency spokesperson Nico Melendez. But all those nickels, dimes, quarters – and a smattering of poker chips and crumpled bills – usually end up getting counted, forwarded to the TSA financial office and then spent on general security operations.
Congress approved that TSA expenditure in 2005, but some lawmakers and passengers rights groups are unhappy TSA gets to keep the change.
In 2009, and again in 2011, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, introduced unsuccessful legislation that would require TSA to give the unclaimed cash to the United Service Organizations (USO), a private nonprofit that operates centers for military personnel at more than 40 U.S. airports. The lawmaker plans to reintroduce the bill soon, "as a stand alone measure and as part of the Homeland Security Appropriations bill," Dan McFaul, a spokesman for Miller's office, told NBC News.
Money left behind by passengers at airport checkpoints is "a windfall TSA does not deserve to keep," said Paul Hudson, executive director FlyersRights.org, a non-profit consumer organization. But rather than give the money to the USO, he'd like the funds to go to nonprofit groups that look out for the rights of travelers. "Passengers pay a lot of taxes on airline tickets and there is currently no government funding in the United States for organizations that seek to help passengers," he said.
"Common sense would dictate that the money is returned to the people who lost it ... travelers," said Brandon Macsata, executive director of the Association for Airline Passenger Rights. But he doubts TSA will ever be required by law to give the change left at airport checkpoints to passenger rights organizations.
If the TSA continues to be able to keep the left-behind money though, Macsata would like the agency to be directed to use it for staff training "to better educate them on how to appropriately handle and treat unique travelers, including travelers with medical conditions, children and travelers with disabilities."
Denver International Airport has another option for travelers approaching the checkpoints with change in their pockets. Earlier this month, the airport installed collection jars on the non secure-side of several checkpoints asking travelers to donate change to Denver's Road Home, an organization that helps the homeless.
By the numbers: Spare change left behind at airport checkpoints
Data courtesy TSA