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.)

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

The 10 Most Visited National Parks in 2019

Josiah Weiss, Unsplash
Josiah Weiss, Unsplash

The U.S. National Park System comprises more than 400 sites, 62 of which are national parks. Within the parks, visitors can explore forests, deserts, volcanoes, and more. But even with the diversity the National Park System has to offer, many visitors find themselves going to the same iconic parks year after year. To see the most-visited national parks in 2019, check out the list below.

This list comes from recreational visitation data gathered by the National Park Service. It doesn't include national monuments, parkways, or similar units—just the sites with the official "national park" designation.

The Great Smoky Mountains tops the list with roughly 12.5 million visits last year. Stretching across five counties in North Carolina and Tennessee, it's less than a day's drive away for one-third of the U.S. population. The accessibility plus the free admission and gorgeous mountain scenery help make it the country's most popular national park.

It's followed by Arizona's Grand Canyon National Park, which saw 5.97 million visits in 2019 to witness its world-famous views. Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park takes third place with 4.7 million visits, and Utah's Zion National Park takes fourth with 4.5 million. Read on for the full top 10.

The National Park Service was established just over a century ago, and it's amassed a fascinating history. Here are some more facts about the United States's national parks.

  1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  2. Grand Canyon National Park
  3. Rocky Mountain National Park
  4. Zion National Park
  5. Yosemite National Park
  6. Yellowstone National Park
  7. Acadia National Park
  8. Grand Teton National Park
  9. Olympic National Park
  10. Glacier National Park