U.S. airlines carried approximately 823 million passengers in 2016—an all-time high. But before a passenger can board a plane, each is required to undergo a rigorous inspection process carried out by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
TSA agents confiscate thousands of prohibited items per day from airports across the country, ranging from the bizarre to the disconcerting. These items, featured on TSA’s Instagram account, have garnered the attention of more than 700,000 followers and growing.
“It almost looks like we’re in the entertainment business at times,” says Bob Burns, lead social media specialist with the TSA Office of Public Affairs and the man behind the account’s cheeky posts. After leaving his rock band in 2002, Burns originally joined TSA as a screener and later started the Instagram account in 2013—his idea to educate the public in a more engaging way.
“Everyone’s had that teacher where you’re afraid to ask questions because you’ll get criticized or yelled at. The human tone of our Instagram account makes us more approachable,” Burns says. “The majority of our photos are prohibited items and strange things … we try to use that as a teaching moment: A chainsaw is not allowed in your carry-on bag.”
Burns receives a weekly rundown of confiscated items that have generated incident reports—large knives, incendiaries, and guns among others—and selects photos from a never-ending goldmine of content. It also acts as a deterrent by showing potential offenders that these items will be found and taken, Burns says.
But sometimes the TSA’s most-loved posts aren’t the prohibited items. “In Atlanta a passenger approached the checkpoint with a rotting corpse dummy that was a prop for the Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,” he recalls. “Imagine this person walking through the airport with this corpse in a wheelchair. Luckily enough it was able to fit through the X-ray.”
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Burns also fields a fair share of strange questions. “[One] that baffled me—I don’t know if they were being funny or they were being serious—they sent us a picture of a potato and asked if they could travel with their potato,” he recalls. “We said ‘Sure, bring your potato!’” In fact, passengers now have a direct line to TSA through more channels than ever, including their new AskTSA Twitter and Facebook Messenger accounts.
Ultimately, Burns wants to make people smile amidst the stresses of travel and show passengers that TSA agents are just like them. “We are humans,” he says. “We’re not just nameless evil people on a Death Star.”