Poll: Most frequent travelers frustrated with TSA screenings

Jason Sickles
September 11, 2012

[Updated at 1:45 p.m. ET]

The not-so-flattering headlines arrive almost daily:

"3-Year-Old Boy In Wheelchair Harassed By TSA"

"TSA Detains Woman Because of 'Attitude'"

"Cell Phone Video of TSA Screening Drinks Goes Viral"

Even its acronym has been hijacked:

"Taking Scissors Away"

"Touchin', Squeezin', Arrestin'"

"Thousands Standing Around"

Loving to loathe the Transportation Security Administration has apparently become an American pastime.

But more than a decade after al-Qaida terrorists used commercial airplanes to attack the United States, two polls differ on perceptions of the security agency born out of 9/11.

A month ago, a Gallup poll found that 54 percent of Americans think the TSA is doing an excellent or good job of handling security screenings at airports.

"At the same time, 41 percent think TSA screening procedures are extremely or very effective at preventing acts of terrorism on U.S. airplanes, with most of the rest saying they are somewhat effective," the Gallup report stated.

Frequent fliers aren't so flattering. According to a report released this week, 90 percent of regular air travelers think the agency is doing either a poor or fair job at the nation's airports.

Fifty-two percent of the Gallup responders had not flown in the past year.

"If I want to know what's broken in airport security, I'd prefer to ask people who fly a lot," said David M. Goldes, publisher of Frequent Business Traveler, which conducted the more recent poll.

Nearly 46 percent of the frequent fliers said they felt screening procedures were not effective in preventing acts of terrorism on an aircraft.

"The survey clearly indicates that substantial improvements are needed at America's airport security checkpoints," said Jonathan Spira, Frequent Business Traveler editorial director. "Frequent fliers are under the impression that the current screening process is largely security theater."

When flights resumed after the Sept. 11 attacks, airports scrambled to more thoroughly screen passengers. The TSA was created two months later and set guidelines requiring that all bags be screened, laptops X-rayed and some fliers frisked. The policies and procedures have been in flux as the TSA plays what one security expert calls a "cat and mouse" game with terrorist groups who continuously try to exploit gaps.

A shoe bomber's attempt to blow up a plane led to passengers having to go through checkpoints in their socks or bare feet. Then a foiled plot in 2006 meant passengers can no longer take liquids of more than three ounces through security.

In recent months, numerous passengers have posted angry messages about TSA workers checking drinks purchased inside terminals after they've cleared security.

"Gate screening is kind of like our safety net to keep up with anybody who might be trying to get things past conventional screening," spokesman Bob Burns recently wrote on a TSA blog. "If everything we did was always the same, it would provide a checklist for people to know exactly what to expect."

Changing expectations for travelers are updated on the TSA website. The agency also recommends travelers use its mobile app and 800 phone information line.

"The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is undertaking efforts to focus its resources and improve the passenger experience at security checkpoints by applying new intelligence-driven, risk-based screening procedures and enhancing its use of technology," the agency said in a statement to Yahoo News. "We are more proactively, in partnership with our stakeholders (airlines, airport authorities, etc) creating awareness among the public of all the information that helps them plan for travel and navigate the checkpoint."

Travel industry veteran Bob Diener told Yahoo News that business travelers are frustrated with the agency's limited and inconsistent advance screening program for regulars.

"TSA is a big bureaucracy, and much can be done to improve and streamline [it]," said Diener, co-founder of Hotels.com. "Many travelers can be prescreened and avoid much of the delays and lines."

The 50,000-member agency isn't just getting an earful from customers. Some members of Congress have called for the $7.6 billion-a-year aviation security agency to be privatized or disbanded.

Even on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, TSA brass are being summoned to testify at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing titled, "Eleven Years After 9/11 Can TSA Evolve to Meet the Next Terrorist Threat?"

"This hearing will help lay the groundwork for reforming TSA into a smarter, leaner organization," Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), subcommittee chairman, said in a statement. "Since TSA's creation after the devastating terrorist attacks of 9/11, TSA has gone down a troubling path of overspending, limiting private-sector engagement and failing to sufficiently protect passenger privacy. At the hearing, our members will shine a bright light on TSA and identify opportunities for meaningful change."

Not all on the committee agree.

"Long lines should not result in so-called efficiencies such as cutting TSA officers or trying to privatize screening," Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) told the Houston Chronicle. "You don't go cheap on homeland security."