So, on Thursday, the agency launched a blog to open a dialog with travelers and to reconcile the perceived need for security with the desire for unhindered transit.
"There is no time to talk, to listen, to engage with each other," lamented TSA Administrator Kip Hawley in the blog's first post. "There isn't much opportunity for our Security Officers to explain the 'why' of what we ask you to do at the checkpoint, just the 'what' needs to be done to clear security. The result is that the feedback and venting ends up circulating among passengers with no real opportunity for us to learn from you or vice versa. "
Hawley's avowed goal for 2008 is "to get TSA and passengers back on the same side, working together." And to do so, he is promising "a lively, open discussion of TSA issues." Although he acknowledged that "destructive" posts will be removed, he said site moderators will "not touch the critical or cranky."
The blog's Comment Policy is rather more specific about permissible feedback. All comments are reviewed before posting. Posts must treat the agency and its employees with respect. That means no vulgar or abusive language, no personal attacks, no ethnic or racial epithets, no spam or marketing pitches, and no unsupported accusations.
However, the presence of a post that begins "Dear fear mongering air Gestapo" suggests that those screening the TSA blog's comments are letting some rather barbed statements slip through. Perhaps surprisingly, TSA appears to be quite earnest in its desire to hear what people really think: One of the moderators assured blog visitors that "commenting on this blog will NOT get you on any list TSA keeps."
A day after its launch, the site's premiere entry has more than 330 comments. Those posting range from enthusiastic TSA employees who think the blog is "a great idea" to aggrieved travelers who want their civil liberties restored to an inventor who believes he has the answer to fungal infections arising from checkpoint shoe removal.
Some comments are quite supportive of TSA. "I understand that some of the passengers do not like taking off their shoes or surrendering their toothpaste, however, there are many passengers that thank us for what we do," said an anonymous commenter who claims to be a TSA employee. "We must all remember that 9/11 happened and we are just trying to make the air safe for everyone. Flying is not a right granted under the Bill of Rights and due to the state of the world today, we must all make smart decisions. I am proud of what we do and what we represent."
Other comments are quite critical. "As a police officer working at a Midwest airport, the thing that irks [me] and the other officers is the attitude of some of the screeners," said someone posting under the name "airport-leo." "There are some that are on a real power trip. They seem to delight in bullying any passengers that might question their reason for doing certain things. They like to come across as having the sole power and authority to let that person on that flight. I have personally complained to Screening Supervisors and Screening Managers about the attitude of certain Screeners but to no avail."
How TSA responds to the criticism it has invited remains to be seen. But the agency certainly has some work to do if it's to win the hearts and minds of the traveling public. In a December IP/Ipsos Poll of 1,004 adults that asked respondents how they felt about government agencies, TSA came in third to last, ahead of Congress and the IRS, but behind FEMA. Only 15% of those surveyed said they had a very favorable view of TSA, compared with 11% for Congress, 14% for the IRS, and 16% for FEMA.