Curtis Robert Burns, who turned the panoply of oddities confiscated from passengers by the Transportation Security Administration into the agency’s wildly popular — and at times frightening — Instagram account, died on Friday at age 48.
Burns turned the TSA’s Instagram account, which he launched in 2013, into something of a social media sensation with more than 950,000 followers. Rolling Stone magazine ranked it the fourth best Instagram account, one notch above Beyonce‘s and two above NASA’s.
Burns would pore over reports of items TSA agents confiscated from passengers’ luggage at airports across the country and write a witty, often pun-filled caption, reminding travelers not to bring their “lipstick knife” or “razor gloves” on board with them. He chronicled 2017’s record number of — mostly loaded — firearms that TSA confiscated from checkpoints around the country. He also encouraged travelers to send in photos of their items to be sure they were cleared by TSA before they got confiscated.
In lighter posts, Burns included tips for how to travel with food, such as live lobsters (allowed) and cheese (only small amounts of soft cheese are permitted), as well as pinatas (allowed, after they’re screened for other items inside).
“His dad humor, of course, was special, and resonated with hundreds of thousands of followers,” Michael Bilello, assistant TSA administrator wrote on the agency’s site in confirming Burns’ death Saturday. “His Top 10 … ridiculous items found at the checkpoint reminded everyone that commonsense isn’t evenly distributed.”
He generated a large and loyal following online for the agency, which oversees arguably one of the more stressful parts of air travel: security checkpoints.
Burns told this reporter in 2016 that he didn’t post photos of every item TSA has confiscated because many were too graphic or inappropriate. Severed bear paws and a sex toy didn’t make the cut for Instagram, he said.
He was “one of the funniest” people at the agency, recalled Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for American Airlines who worked with Burns when they were both at TSA. Feinstein said Burns was extremely enthusiastic about his job and would prepare material for the site and Instagram before he left for vacation. He said Burns helped to demystify the agency through social media.
“Bob really thought outside the box” with the account, said Feinstein. In the last few years, airlines’ social media strategies have become both advertising platforms for flash sales and other promotions and key customer service channels.
Burns joined TSA in 2002 as a luggage screener at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He moved up the ranks and started the TSA’s blog in 2008 and the Instagram account five years later.