TSA kicks up social media campaign to battle the flood of prohibited items

By now, the traveling public is pretty much aware that you can’t take a bottle of water or large tube of toothpaste on a plane.

But that loaded gun – well, you really should keep that at home.

That's a message that hasn't gotten through, according to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which says that people are still attempting to take potentially dangerous items such as fireworks, guns, knives and grenades on planes.

The TSA said 894 guns alone have been taken directly off passengers or from their carry-on bags during the first six months of this year, a 30 percent increase compared to the same period last year. (People are allowed to travel with guns in their checked luggage, but must tell the TSA ahead of time about their presence.)

To help educate the public about what's allowed and what isn't, the TSA has recently added a powerful tool to its social media arsenal: an Instagram account.

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With just 11 posts since the page’s debut in June, the new page has attracted more than 46,000 followers with images of James Bond-worthy weapons: a knife made out of a credit card, a stun gun camouflaged as a pack of cigarettes.

Confiscated items are posted with arty, grainy filters and often come with witty commentary.

"The perfect #knife to bring to a #gunfight was discovered in a carry-on bag at #Cleveland #Hopkins #airport," reads the caption to a photo showing a confiscated knife disguised as a gun.

One user, after seeing an image of an inert grenade, simply commented, “Hysterical.”

Maybe not so funny if it made it on a plane, but that's exactly what the agency is trying to prevent.

The TSA already has significant social media presence with a website, blog and pages on YouTube and Twitter.  The agency says the Instagram account is just one social media platform among the agency’s resources to help make the public aware of what potentially harmful weapons and devices are taken on airplanes.

“The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) uses a variety of ways to engage with the traveling public in order to provide timely information that assists them in traveling safely,” the agency said in a statement.

The TSA’s social media platforms have gotten kudos from some travel experts for helping expose the sheer volume and variety of prohibited items.

“I think the blog is a reminder to people as to what they can and can’t bring on airplanes,” said FareCompare editor Anne McDermott. “We see people at airports who are not aware that they have to take their shoes off at the security checkpoint. That makes for a delay for all of us, and the blog is just helping to speed that process along.”

Lance Ulanoff, editor-in-chief of Mashable, a social media news website, says the TSA is doing more than educating the public. It’s using social media to help “humanize” the agency that has been suffering from a negative image problem.

“People have mixed feelings about the TSA,” Ulanoff told FoxNews.com. "Sometimes they go on a trip and get a patdown, and sometimes the person (the agent) is rough.  This makes some people feel like they are criminals.”

“Because people feel that way about a government service, it is almost like a PR move to expose their lighter side. It takes the fear factor side out of the TSA,” he added.

This month, the TSA made headlines after it confiscated a woman's black patent pumps with a heel resembling a miniature gun at LaGuardia Airport.  The guns weren't real, but the agency considered them a risk, and took them.  The passenger wasn’t arrested or fined for the shoes, and later a TSA employee posted the picture on its Twitter account and this tweet:

While there were some among the twitterati that criticized the TSA for taking the kitschy kicks, many supported the agency for its move.

However, aviation security expert Douglas Laird, former security director for Northwest Airlines, doesn’t buy into the claim that the Instagram account – and the agency’s other social media outlets – do much to keep the skies safer.

“They say they found so many guns, but they never found any guns that would have been used in a terrorist attack,” he said. “It is kind of comical if you ask me. They grab these things from people who forget they are carrying them who pose no real threat.”

Laird instead described the Instagram and other social media platforms as part of “security theater.”

“They are just trying to bolster their image,” he said.  “I would much rather see them invest in improving their security systems to stop real threats.”