The Funniest Travel Account on Instagram Is Run by the T.S.A. Seriously. – The New York Times


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Q. and A.
Meet the woman behind the agency’s endless puns and dad jokes. (And don’t forget the 3.4 ounces rule.)
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When the Transportation Security Administration comes to mind, it’s usually in relation to metal detectors, pat downs and being told that your bottle of sunscreen has to be trashed because it is larger than 3.4 ounces. Charged with, in its own words “protecting the nation’s transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce,” the agency’s officers screen millions of passengers each week and are not known for their sense of humor.
But the T.S.A.’s Instagram account is. The agency’s profile describes itself as the “Princess of Puns,” “Teller of Travel Tips, and “Admirer of Alliteration.” One recent post of a cat inside a traveler’s clear plastic backpack featured the caption, “We let the cat out of the bag … on our Top 10 Catches of 2021!” It went on to explain that T.S.A. officers found some pretty “a-mewsing” items. “We’d call them a-paw-ling if not packed correctly,” it went on.
Who follows the T.S.A. account? More than 1 million people and, according to comments on a recent post about a bazooka rocket launcher found by T.S.A.’s Threat Elimination officers in Raleigh-Durham International Airport, the page is followed by (and receives thousands of comments from) travelers across all races, genders, political persuasions and senses of humor.
In 2021 alone, the page reached 54 million users on Instagram. The “cat out of the bag” post received more than 27,700 likes and 545 comments. Recent T.S.A. posts have been featured on The Tonight Show and The Today Show and shared by the well-known leadership expert and motivational speaker Simon Sinek who has cited the agency “as a great example of how government can have a good relationship with the public on social media.”
According to Daniel Velez, a spokesman for the New England Region of T.S.A.’s Media Operations team, the agency’s Instagram page has enjoyed consistent, considerable growth since it began its humor-based approach about two years ago, when Janis Burl took over as the social media branch manager.
Ms. Burl started as an airport Transportation Security Officer (T.S.O.) and now oversees the social media team from her home office in the Washington, D.C., area.
According to Ms. Burl, her six-person Instagram team “posts odd finds, information about what you can and cannot bring through T.S.A., and travel-related answers to questions we may get” on a daily basis.
And though Ms. Burl no longer works the X-ray machine, when she travels, she said, “all of my senses as a former T. S.O. never turn off.”
This interview is based on two conversations that have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Nobody remembers what was on the news in the morning, but they’ll remember the joke you told them. If it takes humor to help you remember what you can and cannot do when traveling through security, then humor is what we will provide. Whatever the public is talking about, we want to talk about and we want to provide the public with a travel tip in the process.
My team does their own research, searching hashtags and trolling social media. “Trolling” is a terrible word, but that’s really what they do on any social media platform out there — LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and even apps on their own phones like WhatsApp. I don’t ask them to go to any particular sites to look for anything; I give them freedom to roam. They are often looking on their personal social media accounts to see what’s trending. Ideas are then shared among the team to determine if there is something we can do with it. We are constantly looking for an interesting post that’s trending on any platform and we also use photos that our followers share. We spend each morning collaborating to determine what is trending and whether there’s an opportunity for an educational moment.
If we stop something in the airport, a picture of it is taken because reports have to be filed. When we hear about the incident, either through T.S.A. spokespeople or from the airports themselves, then we ask for the picture. We have a vast network and many of the members of the T.S.A. social media team have been on the team for years, so we also hear about these incidents directly from T.S.A. officers on the ground.
You’d be surprised. When we catch or detect a firearm, we contact local law enforcement, who will determine if the individual has a permit to travel with the gun since rules vary dramatically from state to state. In Connecticut, nine times out of 10, you’ll be arrested if you bring a gun to the airport; but in Texas or Florida, if you have a permit, you may not get through security, but more than likely, you’ll just be asked to give your gun to a friend or asked to secure it in your vehicle.
Any picture that has something that you would not expect to see every day, whatever that may be. For instance, we just did a post about a mannequin’s parts being folded up and put onto a plane — who’s going to see that every day? Or the guy skateboarding through the airport — literally, while on his phone! — that was priceless. I feel like I should have paid the guy if I could have found him.
Looking ahead. As governments across the world loosen coronavirus restrictions, the travel industry hopes this will be the year that travel comes roaring back. Here is what to expect:
Air travel. Many more passengers are expected to fly compared to last year. You’ll still need to check the latest entry requirements, and wear a mask for now. But more destinations will be within reach as countries reopen to tourists.
Lodging. During the pandemic, many travelers discovered the privacy offered by rental residences. Hotels hope to compete again by offering stylish extended-stay properties, sustainable options, rooftop bars and co-working spaces.
Rental cars. Travelers can expect higher prices, and older cars with high mileage, since companies still haven’t been able to expand their fleets. Seeking an alternative? Car-sharing platforms might be a more affordable option.
Cruises. Despite a bumpy start to the year, thanks to Omicron’s surge, demand for cruises remains high. Luxury expedition voyages are particularly appealing right now, because they typically sail on smaller ships and steer away from crowded destinations.
Destinations. Cities are officially back: Travelers are eager to dive into the sights, bites and sounds of a metropolis like Parisor New York. For a more relaxing time, some resorts in the U.S. are pioneering an almost all-inclusive model that takes the guesswork out of planning a vacation.
Experiences. Travel options centered around sexual wellness (think couples retreats and beachfront sessions with intimacy coaches) are growing popular. Trips with an educational bent, meanwhile, are increasingly sought after by families with children.
One of my favorites is the @dudewithasign guy (7.8 million followers) holding up a sign that says “Let me bring my toothpaste on a flight.” Well, you can bring your toothpaste on a flight so we answered him with a post in the same manner in which he asked the question. He is not affiliated with the T.S.A. in any way, but has made several travel-related posts that have given us an opportunity to respond with signs.
That is a real T.S.O. located down in Houston. We got permission from him and from his federal security director, who is in charge of T.S.A. at that airport. He’s just holding up blank cardboard and then we will write whatever message we want to get back out. Since they trust that I’m not going to do anything to embarrass T.S.A., I don’t typically have to get a message preapproved.
We have what I call “two sides of the house” — six people on the proactive side who work on Instagram posts and 12 people on the reactive side who answer questions on Facebook and Twitter.
The 12 social media team members on the reactive side work on Ask T.S.A., answering questions pretty much “Johnny on the spot” on Ask T.S.A. Twitter and Ask T.S.A. Facebook. For instance, if you’re waiting in line at the airport, wondering if you can get through security with a bottle of frozen water that’s beginning to melt, you can send a message to Ask T.S.A. and they will instantly let you know that you need to drink all the melted water because everything has to be frozen. They typically answer within less than two minutes.
I will never forget my very first find as a T.S.O. I was just out of training and it was my first time running the X-ray machine. A well-dressed woman had a gun in her purse and when she was questioned, she simply stated that she forgot the gun was in her purse.
The 2022 list highlights places around the globe where travelers can be part of the solution.
Follow New York Times Travel on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. And sign up for our weekly Travel Dispatch newsletter to receive expert tips on traveling smarter and inspiration for your next vacation. Dreaming up a future getaway or just armchair traveling? Check out our 52 Places for a Changed World for 2022.
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