WASHINGTON -- The majority of air travelers think the Transportation Security Administration is moving in the right direction with it's efforts to streamline security screening, according to a new travel industry survey. Still, most passengers say the efforts haven't translated to reduced time or hassle at the nation's airport checkpoints.
"Travelers are appreciative of some of the steps TSA is taking, but by no means content with the security screening process," said Geoff Freeman, vice president of the U.S. Travel Association, which provided The Huffington Post with its new survey ahead of a planned Wednesday release.
"It's a sign of how low the bar is set that we celebrate when 5-year-olds can keep their shoes on" at an airport checkpoint, Freeman added.
The U.S. Travel Association survey, timed to coincide with the 10-year anniversary of TSA's creation as well as the start of the busy holiday travel season, found most air travelers believe TSA is on the "right track" with its recent efforts to streamline security.
By a wide margin, those polled welcomed TSA policy changes that would largely halt pat-downs for children 12 and under, phase out the requirement to remove shoes, implement a trusted traveler program called PreCheck and install new software in full-body scanning machines to enhance privacy. On Monday, the European Union banned the use of full-body x-ray scanners in European airports over public health and safety concerns.
Half said the new initiatives would make them likely to take up to six more trips a year, an indication of how onerous and inefficient security screening may be dampening the demand for air travel.
But despite the new initiatives, a majority said they saw no improvements in checkpoint operations compared to a year ago. And of the five most cited frustrations of flying involved TSA passenger screening, four involved airport security. Those complaints included the wait time at checkpoints, the need to take off belts, jackets and shoes, and the attitudes of TSA employees.
But one complaint, the sheer number of carry-ons now going through airport security, may be less of an issue with TSA, and more of a frustration with the recently introduced luggage fees implemented by many major airlines.
The number of carry-on bags has soared 50 percent since airlines began charging fees for checked luggage in 2008, according to TSA statistics. Eighty-seven million more carry-ons were brought on planes in fiscal year 2011 than in fiscal 2010. Fifty-nine million more carry-ons were brought on planes that year compared to 2009. The increase has led to longer lines at checkpoints and strained TSA resources.
U.S. Travel has urged airlines to allow passengers to check one bag at no additional cost in an effort to reduce the bottleneck at checkpoints. But the prospects of that happening are slim given the billions that the fees have added to airlines' bottom line.
"The number of bags brought to the checkpoint may affect passenger wait times," TSA spokesman Greg Soule told HuffPost. But, he said, it wouldn't affect "the level of security we provide, which remains our priority."
"We continue to use the resources we have to provide the best security possible, in the most efficient way," he added.
Despite the annoyances, two thirds of air travelers said they were satisfied with the TSA's overall performance in providing security at the nation's airports. Just 12.5 percent said they were somewhat or very dissatisfied.
There was less satisfaction among frequent air travelers, though. Only 55 percent in that group said they were satisfied with the TSA's performance, compared to 68 percent of less-frequent travelers. And nearly three times as many frequent flyers were dissatisfied than occasional travelers.
The travel group survey was based on responses from 4,397 people and interviews with 604 people who traveled in the last year. It has a margin of error of 4 percent.
The U.S. Travel Association plans to release its report on Wednesday, the same day Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), a leading critic of the TSA, is expected to release a scathing report card called “A Decade Later: A Call for TSA Reform."
Mica, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has no jurisdiction over the TSA, but that hasn't stopped him from pushing for the dismantling of the agency and transferring its responsibilities to private contractors. He's expected to use his new report to further pummel TSA, a behemoth agency that has grown to more than 60,000 employees -- most of them working as security screeners in airports.
For Freeman, the main concern is how to lower the level of frustration among the flying public.
"The big take-away here is that this security process is still not up to par in the minds of travelers," he said. "There still is great room for improvement."