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The TSA: A Symbol of Frustration and Dissatisfaction

by Dr. Todd Curtis

In recent months the Transportation Security Administration has received negative press on issues such as extravagant spending on the furnishings at a new TSA operations center, and a policy that allowed female passengers to be physically searched by male TSA personnel. The TSA was forced to change that policy after receiving hundreds of complaints from female passengers.

This kind of negative press by itself leads to a bad public perception about the TSA, and negative perception further hurts the TSA's image when the public hears any information that calls into question the ability of the TSA's ability to protect the public from harm. For example, last week, several major media outlets, including the Washington Post, reported on testimony by the Department of Homeland Security before the U.S. Senate in January of this year where the DHS inspector general stated that the ability of TSA screeners to stop prohibited items from being carried through the sterile areas of the airports was no better than the performance of screeners prior to September 11, 2001.

TSA was created in part to enhance that part of security, and testimony such as that provided to the Senate would naturally lead the public to question the very need for a the TSA's more expensive screening process. It would be easy to assume that because the TSA is not more effective in this one area of security that the risk of airline passengers becoming a victim of a terror attack has not changed since 9/11. There are a number of factors that would indicate that in fact the risk from many kinds of attacks has diminished in the last few years, a few of which are mentioned below.

1. Expansion of categories of prohibited items &endash; The range of prohibited items has expanded greatly in the last three years and now include many of the items that were used by the 9/11 hijackers. Details of what is prohibited and what is allowed, as well as links to TSA resources, is available at

2. Added layers of passenger screening &endash; Unlike the pre-9/11 era, all adult passengers in the U.S. have to have some kind of government issued identification to enter the secure area of an airport or to fly on an airliner. In addition, the U.S. government is working toward a system where passengers are systematically screened when making or changing reservations, and then identified for possible extra screening after check in.

3. Heightened awareness of risks &endash; Passengers and airline professionals are more sensitive about security related matters and are much more likely to inform security officials about unusual or suspicious behavior. Also, both aircraft crews and passengers are much more likely to take direct action if someone attempts to interfere with a flight.

For these and other reasons, even if TSA screeners are no more effective than pre-9/11 private sector screeners at finding prohibited items, other parts of the security system have improved and the risks to the public have diminished. In spite of these realities, the TSA will likely continue to have serious public relations problems. TSA screeners remain the most visible and most personal manifestation of airline security that a passenger will see. In the mind of the average traveler, the TSA will be associated with any security-related inconveniences that the traveler may encounter. Every item of negative press that is associated with the TSA will no doubt strengthen and not weaken that association.

Dr. Todd Curtis is president of the Foundation and creator of the web site Todd Curtis conducted research in several areas of aviation risk assessment and accident prevention. Author of the book Understanding Aviation Safety Data as well as a number of articles on Web site planning and airline safety. Licensed private pilot.

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