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.)
“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 in Virginia. 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.
One of the most common topics: 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.
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.”