The tweet initially stumped Mary Ham. A traveler wanted to know if she could stow a spray-tan extender that resembled an alien blaster in her carry-on bag. The AskTSA specialist rifled through her mental file cabinet filled with agency rules and regulations, searching for an answer.
“I’m pretty sure this is fine,” said the Transportation Security Administration employee of nearly 15 years, “but I want to be sure.”
She Googled the product and learned that it does not contain a battery, nor is it considered a power tool. She also consulted with her colleagues, including a former security officer who has assessed all manner of esoterica. After a minutes-long investigation, she nailed her answer: “Any tools longer than seven inches must be checked.”
Ham tapped out a response, informing the passenger that she must pack the equipment in her checked baggage.
Next question, comment or complaint, you’re up.
In September 2015, the agency launched AskTSA, the socialmedia-outreach program that upholds the tenet that there are no stupid questions. Through Twitter and Facebook Messenger, the 10-person team has assured passengers that, yes, they can board the plane with a vacuum, ostrich egg, “knife-nana” (a banana carved in the likeness of a cutting implement), Nana’s metal knitting needles and bacon. That no, bricks, tent stakes and more than 3.4 ounces of sherbet or miso paste are not permitted as carry-ons. And that while the TSA does not ban the transport of marijuana, the feds do. The experts also assist distressed passengers who may have forgotten a valuable on the X-ray machine or experienced a touchy-feely pat-down.
“Travelers are on the go and don’t have time to go online and submit a form or call us,” said Jennifer Plozai, acting deputy assistant administrator for public affairs at the TSA. “They need help in real time.”
The TSA created the program to improve communication with travelers, 2.2 million of whom fly every day.
Its website covers the major screening and packing topics — for kicks, plug obscure objects into its What Can I Bring? tool — but people are still flummoxed. For proof, see the TSA’s Instagram account of wacky items confiscated at checkpoints or harvested from AskTSA posts. (A buzzy aside: Bob Burns’s TSA Instagram account earned fourth place in Rolling Stone’s 100 Best Instagram Accounts in 2015. Put a ring — or collar — on that, No. 5 Beyoncé and No. 14 Cats and Dogs of Instagram.)
“The airlines, airports and TSA all have to work together and improve the experience for the traveler,” Plozai said. “We were not engaging with people.”
Now they are chatting like old social media friends.
To date, AskTSA has responded to 185,000 inquiries and counting. The team, which works from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on holidays and weekends, fields about 800 submissions a day. During busy travel periods, the numbers spike; over spring break, for example, 1,500 travelers reached out daily.
Plozai said that response times average about 25 minutes, depending on the complexity of the problem and the length of the virtual queue.
“Our goal is to respond to every single question within an hour,” she said. “If necessary, we will call in additional help.”
AskTSA operates out of the Transportation Security Operations Center, a Big Brothership near Dulles. From inside the Watch Room, the TSA works with the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Aviation Administration, FBI and other law enforcement and security agencies to keep a collective eye on the country’s transportation operations.
Plozai described the secured space as the “nerve center of TSA intelligence.” Giant glowing maps light up the room, and no smartphones, even ones placed on airplane mode, are permitted inside.
I met the team on a weekday morning, just before the second peak of the day. (Busy times occur at 9 a.m., 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and 4 p.m.) Before we entered the Watch Room, Plozai explained how the program grew out the individual Twitter accounts of TSA spokespeople.
The public clearly wanted to engage with the agency. The first AskTSA tweet came from a man named Alan, who asked: “What else does the TSA do besides airport security?” The answer: “Highway, rail, maritime, aviation transit and pipeline.”
Today, the majority of questions involve the securitycheckpoint experience. In one case, a grandmother was flying for the first time to visit family and sent AskTSA a threeparagraph Facebook message. In another, a man with autism shared his unease about the scanning equipment. A week later, he followed up with a note inky with confidence.
“I opted to go through the big body scanner,” he wrote, “even though I had TSA PreCheck!”
The next most-common topic: Is this so-and-so item permitted on the plane?
“A lot of the top questions are about food,” Plozai said. “Fruit, mini-bottles of booze, crawfish, lemons.”
People often attach photos to their queries, which helps the specialists better assess the object and provide a more accurate answer. She showed me images of a tiny, 3-D printed handgun wedged between a man’s thumb and forefinger, a caped couple wielding “Star Wars” light sabers and a basset hound with moony eyes.
PreCheck issues also pop up quite frequently. For instance, the special lane is closed. The expert’s advice: Go through the regular line and show the officer your boarding pass, so you can receive expedited service. Passengers also seek help when the PreCheck indicator is missing from their boarding pass.
On Twitter, the specialist will switch to direct messaging (Facebook is already private) and ask the passenger for full name, known traveler number and airline confirmation number. The AskTSA member will check the information for any discrepancies, and if necessary, contact the carrier to update the customer’s reservation and reissue a boarding pass.
“We do your bidding,” Plozai said, “because we don’t want it to be more complicated than necessary.”
The AskTSA board often lights up when a new toy becomes hot, such as hoverboards, selfie sticks and drones, or a product gains notoriety, such as e-cigarettes and the fiery Samsung Galaxy Note 7.
“I saw the Samsung 7 Note is not allowed on planes. What about the regular phone?” a passenger named Christina recently tweeted. “Maybe a stupid question but I’m asking anyway.”
The expert replied, “Currently, the Department of Transportation has banned the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 from aircraft. All other phones are good to go.”
Viral moments implicating the TSA can land like a sack of scorpions at the feet of AskTSA. In March, the controversial pat-down of a male teenager at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport resulted in an uptick in comments, many incensed.
“You people should be ashamed. I just had a pat down that took, maybe, 20-30 sec’s,” a traveler tweeted in response to the two-minute-long ordeal that a bystander captured on video. “This is perverse.”
AskTSA responded, “Pat-downs are an important security measure to keep dangerous items off planes.” The tweet included a link to the agency’s blog, which details the procedure.
Of course, sometimes you need more than 140 characters to explain a position or spread your message. In the case of the Texas teen, the TSA consulted with the mother, who helped update its website’s entry on traveling with children.
It also released a video demonstrating a pat-down, part of an instructional series that includes “TSA Cares: Screening for Transgender Passengers.” That video, which was released in April, stemmed from a complaint issued by Kristin Beck, a transgender woman. The agency is also working with Denise Albert, a breast-cancer patient who went public after a discomfiting pat-down, to develop educational videos for travelers with cancer.
“The AskTSA social care program has allowed us to help passengers in real-time,” Plozai said, “while also driving systemic changes.”
On a Friday morning in mid-April, the questions were fairly standard — for AskTSA.
Q: “Can I bring my plastic replica viking helmet with horns back from Ireland by wearing it onboard?”
A: “Plastic viking helmets are allowed through. Please check with your airline about wearing it on the flight.”
In their responses, the specialists embrace exclamation points and Hallmark card-style wordplay.
A question about flying with candy inspired Josh Wagner to write,“Have a sweet day!” The send-off for a query about cake read, “Security will be a piece of cake for you.”
Ham, one of six members covering the first shift, was barreling through the questions. Yes, an empty water bottle is allowed through security. For information on re-entering the country with Swedish candy, here’s a link to Customs and Border Protection. To carry a bottle of ZzzQuil onto the plane, just let the officer know that you have a medically necessary liquid.
Then she received a picture of a small red bag. The traveler wanted to know if the piece of luggage was too small to be checked.
“To be honest,” Ham said, “I don’t know what this means.”
Remember the adage.
She gazed directly into the computer screen and started typing.
“Any size bag is allowed to be checked,” she wrote.
She reread the sentence and deleted it.
“No bag is too small to check-in with your carrier.”
Still not right.
“Anthony, your red bag is good to go in checked or carry-on.”
Then she posted it.
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