For all of your weird bag­gage ques­tions, AskTSA is there

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY ANDREA SACHS andrea.sachs@wash­

Meet the TSA team that re­sponds to the pub­lic’s (strange) ques­tions on Twit­ter.

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 car­ryons. 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 pat­down 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, “Pat­downs 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 breast­cancer 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 midApril, 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.

“A lot of the top ques­tions are about food. Fruit, mini-bot­tles of booze, craw­fish, lemons.” Jennifer Plozai, act­ing deputy as­sis­tant ad­min­is­tra­tor for pub­lic af­fairs at the Trans­porta­tion Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion


TOP: From left, AskTSA spe­cial­ists Sonja Arm­strong, Rac­quel Au­guste and Josh Wag­ner an­swer trav­el­ers’ ques­tions posted on the agency’s Twit­ter and Face­book ac­counts. Top­ics range from carry-on items to pat-downs. LEFT: A pair of AskTSA’s more mem­o­rable Twit­ter ex­changes.


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