The guy with the alligator in his pants never made it to Instagram and neither did the man with Ziploc bags of vodka taped to his thighs. But the supermarket-grade meat slicer someone tried to pack in a carry-on did make a social media appearance (and quickly garnered over 4,100 likes). Though it may not always seem so to followers of the Transportation Security Administration’s wildly popular (and currently unmanaged) Instagram feed, standards apply to what it can post.
The T.S.A. is, after all, a federal agency, one with a multibillion dollar budget and over 57,000 employees and the daunting task of safeguarding the skies. Screeners at airports are considered “essential” employees and are working without pay in the government shutdown — although, according to CNN, “hundreds” are now calling in sick, many for practical reasons (child care, work that pays their bills).
And challenges for those workers ramp up this time of year when, over a two-week period that starts before Christmas and ends just after New Year’s Day, an estimated 41 million harried travelers shed belts and shoes, grudgingly remove both laptops and liquids from their luggage — and also, not infrequently, fail to recall that they have tucked a loaded pistol, say, or a pet tarantula or some throwing stars in their carry-ons.
“Common sense is not evenly distributed,” the T.S.A. spokesman Michael Bilello said of the air traveling population one recent pre-shutdown morning at the agency’s headquarters in Pentagon City, Va. “Personally I stress out about my Listerine spray, and you have people coming through security with medieval weapons.”
Maces and crossbows may be the least of it, as it happens. Or so it can seem to followers of @tsa, the agency’s hugely popular Instagram account. Devotees of a feed that counts close to one million followers have grown accustomed to a certain level of crazy on the part of the traveling public. They are aware that tales of snakes concealed in computer hard drives, scythes in backpacks, bricks of weed festooned in Christmas wrapping, replica rifle umbrellas and sword canes are more than urban legend. People try carrying stuff like that — and worse — onto airplanes every day.
That they know this is largely attributable to the efforts of a former transit security officer who, from modest beginnings as a volunteer blogger for the agency, went on to create the T.S.A.’s official Instagram account over five years ago. It was back in 2013 that Curtis Robert Burns, widely known as “Blogger Bob,” first began posting smartphone snaps shot by airport personnel — culled from daily reports of contraband seized at 450 airports throughout the country — to the internet.
To the surprise of many in government, the agency’s Instagram account quickly attracted a sizable following among those alternately drawn to and horrified by a steady cascade of images depicting lipstick Tasers, bone knives and replicas of Freddy Krueger’s ghoulish bladed gloves.
Though the prospect of anonymous baddies sneaking bombs onto planes can sometimes seem abstract (if scary), Mr. Burns’s goofy way with a caption tended to import a measure of common sense and humanity to a detested ritual of modern travel. He did this while highlighting the T.S.A.’s serious underlying core mission.
“When we first started it, the reason was to get at why the T.S.A. did what it did,” said Lynn Dean, a former public affairs officer at the agency and who now works for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “The challenge was that every time you met someone at a barbecue and said you were a T.S.A. person, you’d get lambasted: ‘Why did they take away my toothpaste? I’m in a wheelchair, why did you have to scan me? I’ve got a pin in my hip.’”
The wryly informative captions Mr. Burns appended to his posts — along with the hashtags that, as Jimmy Kimmel once noted, Mr. Burns deployed more liberally than a teenage girl — helped put a face to an abstract arm of federal government, a division of the Department of Homeland Security formed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“Bob had this firsthand knowledge of dealing with the good, the bad and the obnoxious aspects of the world coming through the checkpoints,” said Mr. Bilello, the T.S.A. spokesman. “He used dad humor to put the mission across.”
In April 2018, the T.S.A. won its first Webby award, for internet excellence in the categories of Corporate Communications in Social, the aptly titled Weird in Social, as well as a category called People’s Voice for Weird. Lofting and giving a good shake to an award that looked remarkably like a truck spring, Mr. Burns pronounced his Webby “carry-on approved.”
And then in October, at the age of 48, Mr. Burns died unexpectedly of a bacterial infection. He left behind a wife, two daughters and a government agency with no clear blueprint for replicating the jaunty social media presence Mr. Burns devised.
The agency has not yet posted the listing, but it will appear soon on USAJobs, the official federal government employment website. “It’s a very hard government job to post for,” said James O. Gregory, a public affairs officer at the T.S.A. “The task is to educate passengers and stop bad people. But you’ve got to do it in such a way that it’s interesting.” Humor has proved the best format for that.
And Mr. Burns had that to spare, no matter the offending object. In a video of his annual list of the top ten most bizarre things people tried to carry onto planes in 2017, he characterized one jagged gizmo found at Honolulu’s international airport as “Satan’s pizza cutter.” (Another, a “grenade art thing” snagged by an X-ray machine in Milwaukee, was so strange, Mr. Burns was left to shake his head in disbelief.)
“There’s no shortage of stories,” said Ms. Dean, invoking the tale of the alligator in a passenger’s pants. Its head had been taped beneath one trouser leg; its tail, fastened down the other. The alligator’s torso was pressed against the groin. The New York bound passenger might even have made it through the checkpoint at Puerto Rico’s international airport had it not been for a sharp-eyed T.S.A. officer.
“As the passenger was approaching, the officer saw something rise in his trousers,” Ms. Dean said. “Maybe they’d tried to give it a little ether and it woke up, but the officer spotted it and said, ‘Sir, your pants should not be moving in your midleg.’”
That particular tale, first reported in a T.S.A. newsletter, never quite made it to Instagram, mostly for reasons of delicacy. “That’s what feels so irreplaceable about Bob,” Ms. Dean said. “You are trying to amuse people and inform passengers while humanizing officers working at airports, whom everyone hates and who’ve probably said, ‘Please take all your liquids out of your bags,’ about four million times.”
You are trying, Ms. Dean said, somehow to explain for the benefit of the nearly three million people who shuffled along purgatorial lines at airports daily this season why T.S.A. officers are obliged to screen those in wheelchairs, or why it is necessary to X-ray a bride’s precious wedding dress, and also why, if you insist on traveling with sex toys in your carry-on, you should make sure to remove the batteries first.
“It actually happened that someone’s vibrator went off in their bag,” Ms. Dean said. “And a vibrating suitcase is definitely going to trigger an alarm.”
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