Shoes Off, Laptops Out of the Bag
Each day at airports in the United States, roughly 1.9 million people walk through a TSA security checkpoint. That’s a whole lot of plastic water bottles thrown away. Bob Burns is not in charge of a TSA recycling center, but he does have one of the world’s most interesting gigs for the Transportation Security Administration. As head of social media for the United States TSA, Bob combs through photos of grenades and knives confiscated at airport security stations while running the Instagram account @tsa, which might be one of the better social media accounts on the planet.
We managed to pull Bob aside in a private screening room and learn more about his role, the inner workings of the TSA, and what to do if you are thinking of bringing a fake corpse, bazooka, or a water balloon launcher through security on your next trip.
We’re not the evil, nameless minions in the bowels of a Death Star.
Could you briefly describe your job?
Bob Burns: I’m a Public Affairs Specialist focused on social media. I look at myself as an educator and an entertainer. I help travelers understand how to travel smoothly through our checkpoints and keep them informed of new policies and procedures. I also give our followers a behind-the-scenes look at TSA operations. While TSA isn’t in the entertainment business, I do my best to entertain people so they’ll come back and read more.
What would you say is the craziest object you have seen someone try and get through TSA at an airport?
BB: So. Many. Favorites. A movie prop corpse used in Texas Chainsaw Massacre II. Its owner/travel companion pushed him up to the checkpoint in a wheelchair. Luckily, he (the corpse, not the traveler) fit through the X-ray, and our officers were able to clear everything and send them on their merry way.
We imagine there is a trapdoor under the floor of most TSA security stations that many of the prohibited items end up being dropped down, think something like Return of the Jedi scene when Luke has to fight that giant monster but just without the monster down there. If the hidden pit is not the case, what happens to many of the confiscated items at TSA? And can we come to your garage sale this weekend?
BB: I can clear up a big misconception now and tell you there are no monsters underneath our checkpoints. Another big misconception is that our officers can keep the prohibited items that are left at our checkpoints. Our officers are not allowed, under any circumstances, to keep any of the prohibited items surrendered at our checkpoints. It’s a zero-tolerance offense and a quick way out of a job.
There are a number of things that happen to the items: Some are disposed of, some are auctioned off for state surplus and some are hazmat and need to be collected and disposed of in special ways. While we’re talking about items surrendered at the checkpoint, we use the word “surrender” because we give travelers options so they can keep their belongings. They can leave them with somebody they know, they can take them out to their car, they can go to a postal kiosk and mail them to themselves, or they can go back to the ticket counter and see about having the item checked with luggage. If none of these options utilized, the traveler can surrender the item to TSA.
If you could have one person, dead or alive, fiction or real, to start following @tsa on Instagram who would that be?
BB: It would have to be Douglas Adams, he was brilliant, his writing has given me so much joy over the years. Could you imagine Douglas Adams set loose in the comments section of a TSA Instagram post? The hilarity that would ensue. In fact, while I try to be funny, some of the best stuff I read is in the comments people leave for us. We have some extremely funny followers, which adds to the quality of our Instagram account.
“It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression, ‘As pretty as an airport’”
TSA has done an incredible job of breaking barriers and stereotypes of what social media can be from the government. You guys are very human. How the hell did you get away with this?
BB: Shhhh! You’ll give us away! It goes all the way back to former TSA Administrator Kip Hawley, in 2008. He wanted an agency blog, and he didn’t want it to be a stuffy space destined for press releases and AP Style boilerplate. He wanted it to be real. He wanted a human face for the agency. He allowed us to set the tone and over the years, we’ve really grown into it. It’s not as easy as it sounds though… We’ve had our fair share of obstacles, but the key to our success has been persistence and a lot of patience. An informal light-hearted style makes the agency so much more approachable. We’re not the evil nameless minions in the bowels of a Death Star, as some would think.
TSA officers discovered 62 firearms last week in carry-on bags around the nation. Of the 62 firearms discovered, 55 were loaded and 20 had a round chambered. … While firearms are prohibited in carry-on bags, you can pack them in your checked baggage as long as you meet the packing guidelines at TSA.gov … As a refresher, carry-on bags go into the cabin of the plane with you. Checked bags go into the cargo hold of the plane where passengers have no access. … When firearms are discovered at the checkpoint, we contact law enforcement and they decide what happens based on background checks, interviews and local laws. … A firearm at the checkpoint could lead to fines, arrests, missed flights or all of the above. As far as what happens to confiscated firearms, that’s up to each local police department.
One more time for those reading this on their way to the airport, any last words or suggestions of what not to bring through TSA screening at the airport?
BB: Guns. Really! In 2017, our officers discovered an average of 11 firearms a day in carry-on bags at TSA checkpoints around the nation, most of them loaded. The biggest excuse we hear is that they forgot it was in their bag. No worries though, firearms can be packed in checked bags as long as specific packing guidelines are being met.
Also, if anybody has any questions about what they can or can’t bring to the airport, all they need to do is snap a photo of the item and send it to our AskTSA team. You can’t imagine the photos we’ve seen. I’ve featured some on the Instagram account. I think my favorite was a potato. The team can be reached on Twitter at @AskTSA and Facebook messenger. It’s an excellent resource for travelers, and the team helps around 1,000 travelers a day. And in case you’re wondering, yes, potatoes are permitted in carry-on and checked bags.
Give Bob a follow when you have a moment, nice guy. Check out some more of his favorite @tsa posts
This Boston Logan (BOS) TSA officer found himself in a pinch and needed to remove this giant lobster from its container to resolve a checked baggage alarm. This is proof that lobsters are allowed in carry-on and checked bags. As you can imagine, they’re a popular item at New England airports. Just check with your airline first for packing guidelines. Oh, in case you were wondering, butter and cheddar biscuits are permitted as well.
I’m not sure why you’d bring this into the cabin of an aircraft. I mean… if there is a bear on the plane, he bought a ticket same as you. Would you want a bear to walk up to your seat and spray you with mace? Doubtful… Now if you’re out in the forest and he’s trying to steal your pic-a-nic basket, that’s a different story. All varieties of mace are not allowed in carry-on property. Mace can be packed in checked baggage, but bear mace canisters usually exceed the allowable volume of less than four ounces. it also must have less than a two percent active ingredient of either CS or CN. It’s best to purchase the bear mace at your destination. This canister of mace was discovered in a carry-on bag at the Seattle – Tacoma International Airport (SEA).