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Courtesy of Bob Burns
Courtesy of Bob Burns

7 Things We Learned From Bob Burns, the TSA's Hilarious Social Media Guru

Courtesy of Bob Burns
Courtesy of Bob Burns

Fans of the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) social media pages—particularly its Instagram account, which has more than 820,000 followers—know and love Bob Burns’s wit, even if they don’t know his name. The airport screener-turned-social media maven began engaging travelers around the world with his laugh-out-loud content on the organization's official blog, which launched in 2008. Five years later, in 2013, the TSA's Instagram debuted. Within one week, Burns's hilarious captions and bizarre pictures of "crazy things people attempted to bring through the TSA checkpoint,” as he put it in a recent interview, had attracted the notice of late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel.

Today, Burns is the TSA’s social media lead, which means he’s the one posting the photos and coming up with the captions that regularly make you chuckle. In less than five years, the account has gained more than 800,000 followers, one-upped Beyoncé, and helped countless airline passengers stay safe and prepared while traveling.

In a Facebook Live interview on Monday, December 18, Burns shared some of his favorite airport anecdotes, offered advice on how to build a social media following, and busted some common myths about his organization.

1. BURNS BECAME INSTA-FAMOUS BY POSTING "INTERESTING CONTENT," BUT SHOCK VALUE DIDN'T HURT.

Burns, who initially began his career with the TSA in 2002 as a screener, “never would’ve guessed in a million years that my job would lead me to being a social media specialist for a governmental organization,” he said. With no official training in social media, he attributed his success to shock value, stating that “People don’t come to a government Instagram account and expect to see humor." The TSA’s international reach and, above all, strong content have also helped the account develop a dedicated following.

Burns advises aspiring social media mavens to “make your content interesting. Choose pictures that are going to get people's reaction and make them comment, and don’t just post because you feel like you have to post something.”

2. TSA OFFICERS DON’T TAKE (OR POST) THE TSA’S INSTAGRAM PHOTOS.

“Some people think we have our officers taking pictures and just posting them to Instagram, which is not the case,” Burns said. “I can’t imagine the kinds of things we’d see if we did that. I have access to all the incident reports, so I can kind of cherry-pick the best pictures and share the best content.”

3. THE CARRY-ON ITEMS AREN’T FAKE, EITHER.

"Some people will actually wonder, ‘Was this a test? Were you testing your employees?’” Burns said. “No, we don’t post those kinds of things on our Instagram account. Everything we post is actually something that someone tried to bring on a plane.”

4. A LIFE-SIZED FAKE CORPSE AND A SANDWICH SLICER ARE JUST TWO OF THE STRANGER ITEMS PEOPLE HAVE TRIED TO GET PAST AIRPORT SECURITY.

When asked about his favorite checkpoint mishaps, Burns recalled the time someone tried to bring a sandwich slicer through security, “like the one you see in a deli,” Burns said. “It’s got the huge blade on it that spins around and cuts super thin slices of roast beef. “

Another time, someone tried to bring a movie prop from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre onto a plane. “This guy’s going around the airport with this life-size corpse in a wheelchair, wheeling it around the airport,” Burns recalled.

5. PEOPLE REGULARLY BRING GUNS AND KNIVES THROUGH SECURITY.

“Knives are always a daily occurrence,” Burns said. “Firearms are pretty much almost always a daily occurrence.”

The TSA finds around 70 guns per week in carry-on bags, “and the majority of those are loaded,” Burns says. "The main reason is, ‘I forgot it was there.’ My favorite [excuse was when] someone blamed it on their mom ... ‘My mom put it in my bag.' It’s like, ‘What kind of mother do you have?!’"

Burns suspects that some travelers “might think if they have a conceal and carry permit, that allows them to bring it on the plane, which is not the case,” he explained. “No firearms whatsoever. But you can travel with them in checked baggage, as long as you follow our procedures, which you can find at tsa.gov.”

6. THE TSA DOESN’T CONFISCATE BIZARRE ITEMS.

Contrary to popular belief, “we don’t confiscate anything,” Burns said. “We give travelers options. If you have time, you can take it out to your car. You could actually put it in your checked bag and have it shipped to you. If you have somebody waiting for you, you can take it out to them and they can get it to you at a later date. We give everyone all the options we can to allow them to keep the item as long as it’s not a firearm.”

And yes, that includes the sandwich slicer. “We try to let you keep your sandwich slicer,” Burns added. “We know you need to slice your meat."

7. AT LEAST ONE PERSON ACCIDENTALLY PACKED A PET.

One time, officers opened up a checked bag and “a Chihuahua popped out,” Burns said. “Imagine the officer’s face when that happened. But it turns out the Chihuahua happened to just crawl into the bag when the woman was packing. She didn’t know, and she zipped up the bag and it wasn’t a carry-on bag, it was a checked bag.”

The Chihuahua incident was immortalized on the TSA’s Instagram page. (Not surprisingly, the dog was “not happy” in the photo, Burns said.)

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The Real Bay of Pigs: Big Major Cay in the Bahamas
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When most people visit the Bahamas, they’re thinking about a vacation filled with sun, sand, and swimming—not swine. But you can get all four of those things if you visit Big Major Cay.

Big Major Cay, also now known as “Pig Island” for obvious reasons, is part of the Exuma Cays in the Bahamas. Exuma includes private islands owned by Johnny Depp, Tyler Perry, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, and David Copperfield. Despite all of the local star power, the real attraction seems to be the family of feral pigs that has established Big Major Cay as their own. It’s hard to say how many are there—some reports say it’s a family of eight, while others say the numbers are up to 40. However big the band of roaming pigs is, none of them are shy: Their chief means of survival seems to be to swim right up to boats and beg for food, which the charmed tourists are happy to provide (although there are guidelines about the best way of feeding the pigs).

No one knows exactly how the pigs got there, but there are plenty of theories. Among them: 1) A nearby resort purposely released them more than a decade ago, hoping to attract tourists. 2) Sailors dropped them off on the island, intending to dine on pork once they were able to dock for a longer of period of time. For one reason or another, the sailors never returned. 3) They’re descendants of domesticated pigs from a nearby island. When residents complained about the original domesticated pigs, their owners solved the problem by dropping them off at Big Major Cay, which was uninhabited. 4) The pigs survived a shipwreck. The ship’s passengers did not.

The purposeful tourist trap theory is probably the least likely—VICE reports that the James Bond movie Thunderball was shot on a neighboring island in the 1960s, and the swimming swine were there then.

Though multiple articles reference how “adorable” the pigs are, don’t be fooled. One captain warns, “They’ll eat anything and everything—including fingers.”

Here they are in action in a video from National Geographic:

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This 1940 Film on Road Maps Will Make You Appreciate Map Apps Like Never Before
Douglas Grundy, Three Lions/Getty Images
Douglas Grundy, Three Lions/Getty Images

In the modern era, we take for granted having constantly updated, largely accurate maps of just about every road in the world at our fingertips. If you need to find your way through a city or across a country, Google Maps has your back. You no longer have to go out and buy a paper map.

But to appreciate just what a monstrous task making road maps and keeping them updated was in decades past, take a look at this vintage short film, "Caught Mapping," spotted at the Internet Archive by National Geographic.

The 1940 film, produced by the educational and promotional company Jam Handy Organization (which created films for corporations like Chevrolet), spotlights the difficult task of producing and revising maps to keep up with new road construction and repair.

The film is a major booster of the mapmaking industry, and those involved in it come off as near-miracle workers. The process of updating maps involved sending scouts out into the field to drive along every road and note conditions, compare the roads against topographical maps, and confirm mileage figures. Then, those scouts reported back to the draughtsmen responsible for producing revised maps every two weeks. The draughtsmen updated the data on road closures and other changes.

Once those maps were printed, they were "ready to give folks a good steer," as the film's narrator puts it, quietly determining the success of any road trip in the country.

"Presto! and right at their fingertips, modern motorists can have [information] on any road they wish to take." A modern marvel, really.

[h/t National Geographic]

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