How did an agency created to protect the public become the target of so much public scorn?
After nine years of funneling travelers into ever longer lines with orders to have shoes off, sippy cups empty and laptops out for inspection, the most surprising thing about increasingly heated frustration with the federal Transportation Security Administration may be that it took so long to boil over.
The TSA "is not a flier-centered system. It's a terrorist-centered system and the travelers get caught in it," said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University who has tracked the agency's effectiveness since it's creation.
That built-in conflict is at the heart of a growing backlash against the TSA for ordering travelers to step before a full-body scanner that sees through their clothing, undergo a potentially invasive pat-down or not fly at all.
TSA operates on the belief that a key to foiling terrorists is to keep them guessing, agency watchers say. But it has never really explained that to a flying public that sees never-ending changes in policies covering carry-on liquids, shoes, and printer cartridges as maddening and pointless inconsistency.
"If you ask what its procedures are, how you screen people, its 'I can't tell you that because if the bad guys find out they'll be able to work around the system'," said Christopher Elliott, an Orlando, Fla.-based consumer advocate specializing in travel. "That's why a lot of what they've done has not really gone over well with air travelers. They perceive it as being heavy-handed and often the screeners come across as being very authoritarian."
Over time, TSA has settled into a pattern of issuing directives with little explanation and expecting they be followed. But increasingly fed-up travelers don't understand the agency's sense of urgency and aren't buying it.
"I don't think the law enforcement approach is going to work with the American public. You've got to explain yourself and reassure people. And they're not doing it," Light said.
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At least my experiences with airport security ended up better than this poor fellow: TSA pat-down leaves traveler covered in urine.