WASHINGTON – Hand sanitizer makes it through security in one airport, then it's confiscated at another. Screening lines back up because only two of six lanes are open. And then there's the occasional all-too-intimate patdown.
Those complaints and other frustrations make the nation's airport security agency about as popular as the IRS.
Indeed, only the Federal Emergency Management Agency, still suffering from its mishandling of Hurricane Katrina, ranks below the Transportation Security Administration among the least-liked federal agencies, according to a new Associated Press-Ipsos poll.
TSA tied with the perennially unpopular tax collectors in a favorablity ranking of a dozen executive branch agencies.
"I am so frustrated with TSA that I am ready to stop flying," one traveler wrote in a Sept. 7 complaint filed with the agency. "I'm sure this doesn't matter to you because my tax dollars are already paying you."
The AP poll, conducted Monday through Wednesday, found that the more people travel, the less they like TSA.
But it also found that 53 percent of air travelers think TSA does a "very" or "somewhat" good job.
The inconvenience of security was the top complaint of air travelers, mentioned by 31 percent of those who had taken at least one trip in the past year. That figure rose to 40 percent for those who have taken five to 10 trips.
TSA's parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, also ranked at the bottom of an index of consumer satisfaction released this week, supplanting the IRS as the prime subject of grumbling in that survey. The authoritative American Customer Satisfaction Index questioned 10,000 people about their experiences with the federal government.
TSA officials say they understand the frustration and are working to minimize hassles. They say while it can be annoying, airport screening is essential because intelligence reports show aviation remains a top target for terrorists.
A review of complaints the traveling public lodged with TSA in September helps explain the low standing. While passengers generally understand TSA's mission, they could do without certain parts of the pre-boarding experience.
Take, for example, a mother and daughter traveling out of the Dallas/Fort Worth airport on Sept. 4. In an e-mailed complaint to TSA, the mother said the TSA screener was rude and inconsiderate. While she was in secondary screening, the mother was made to face away from her daughter. "Someone could have taken my daughter," the woman wrote. "I understand you have to have security, but your people don't need to be rude!!!"
On Sept. 3, a man leaving Orlando, Fla., filed a lengthy complaint because he said a screener touched him "like no man ever has — not even my doctor." "This type of bodily inspection, privately or publicly, is undignified," he wrote. "Have terrorists succeeded in making us that scared of each other?"
Nearly 9,000 such complaints flowed into TSA between January and October of this year, and the agency made a selection of them available at the request of The Associated Press.
Screeners are "just rigid, intransigent, inflexible, unpleasant, and they always have the fact that they've got the security of the nation that they're falling back on," said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association. Stempler said he has no way of telling whether TSA has addressed any of the hundreds of complaints it receives each month.
Another frequent complaint is that security restrictions seem pointless and arbitrary.
"The security is a joke, it's an absolute joke," said James Atkinson, a Massachusetts businessman.
Atkinson said he has sent dozens of complaints to TSA and the Federal Aviation Administration over the past 10 years, and has never heard back. His complaints range from unmanned checkpoints to the absurdity of the rule restricting liquids in carry-on luggage to three ounces or less. The TSA imposed a restriction on liquids in August 2006 after a plot surfaced to blow up U.S. airliners with liquid explosives.
Paul C. Light, professor of public policy at New York University, said he's not surprised that TSA and the IRS are tied for low public esteem.
Yet he defended TSA as misunderstood, because it's highly visible yet can't brag about its successes. "It's an agency that's damned if it does, damned if it doesn't," Light said.
TSA responds to every complaint it receives, said spokeswoman Ellen Howe, adding that each complaint is forwarded to the federal security director at the airport in question.
In the cases AP reviewed, the most common response was a form letter, apologizing for inconveniences, often blaming the problem of long lines on the local airport and forwarding complaints about inappropriate patdowns to the airports where they occurred.
In May, TSA improved the way it handles complaints and now has a more accurate and complete database for them, Howe said. She said screeners have been disciplined as a result of complaints but said privacy laws prevent her from providing more detail about these incidents.
Out of all the contacts TSA receives, only about 2 percent are complaints, Howe said. In September, for instance, TSA received 1,253 complaints out of 68,540 total contacts. Most people contact TSA to ask what items they can bring aboard the aircraft.
Howe also defended the agency's 43,000 screeners and said the public needs to know that they are "good people motivated by the mission."
"Our officers take a lot of disrespect from the public," Howe said. "These people are on the front lines and they deserve our respect."
Screeners make about $30,000 a year.
Bill Lyons, the union official who is trying to organize screeners and get them bargaining rights, said many problems arise because TSA has understaffed the checkpoints. Lyons, of the American Federation of Government Employees, said operating procedures change regularly and many screeners are not told of the changes. Supervisors often give conflicting instructions, he said.
"These folks are under tremendous pressure," Lyons said.
TSA says each airport makes its own staffing decisions. Administrator Kip Hawley acknowledges the public's frustrations with the screening system.
"You have 2 million people a day jamming into these congested checkpoints and chewing through the magnetometer," Hawley said. "Clearly that's not the best way. And so the trick is how do we — without disrupting the system — get to a more spread out, calmer security process where people aren't so jammed up, aren't so tense."
Hawley said deploying new technology and new screening techniques — which TSA is already doing — moves in that direction.
Behavioral observation and document checking are proving to be the most successful in rooting out would-be terrorists, Hawley said. Screeners do catch people who try to bring guns onto planes. "But they're not terrorists. They're just stupid," he said. Terrorists know better than to try to bring prohibited items through security, he said.
TSA's security decisions are driven by intelligence on threats to the aviation sector. Hawley gets briefed on the threat every morning, and information from those briefings has led to changes in screening policies.
Earlier this year, for instance, TSA warned travelers that screeners would be paying closer attention to remote-control toys, because of unspecific information about terrorists using such toys to detonate bombs. And the agency began deploying behavior-detection officers in airports across the country, because intelligence has shown that there is no "common face" for a terrorist.
That means whether someone is nervous or uncomfortable is more reliable as a sign of risk than judging people by their looks, said Bill Gaches, head of TSA's global strategies division.