Who Screens the Screeners? American Opinions on the TSA

Only half of Americans feel TSA screening makes air travel safer; Two-thirds concerned lessening security procedures for some passengers through TSA's Pre-Check could result in missing potential threats

PR Newswire

NEW YORK, April 24, 2014 /PRNewswire/ -- They have access to our documentation and belongings – albeit briefly. They both embody and carry out the safeguards put in place to protect travelers from the threats among us. "They" are the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and its most visible set of employees, the agents responsible for security screenings at the nation's commercial airports. But what criteria do Americans think TSA screening agents should meet? And do they make air travel safer? Only half of U.S. adults believe so, with 50% indicating that TSA security screening procedures make air travel safer and 48% believing the screenings are an effective deterrent to hijacking.

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These are some of the results of The Harris Poll of 2,234 adults surveyed online between March 12 and 17, 2014. (Full findings, including data tables, available here)

Those more likely to have been on the business end of a TSA screening within the past year are more likely to see it as both making air travel safer (46% among those who took no airline trips in the past year vs. 55% among those who took 1-5 and 57% among those who took over 5) and serving as an effective deterrent to hijacking (45% vs. 53% and 60%, respectively).

Screening the screeners

When it comes to who are acceptable candidates to become TSA agents, Americans appear flexible on qualifications but mindful of past misdeeds. Majorities feel it would be acceptable for someone who didn't attend college (81%) or who has no previous law enforcement experience (63%) to become a TSA agent. On the other hand, majorities feel someone who was disciplined for misconduct in a previous job (76%), or who has been convicted of driving under the influence (72%) or of a non-violent crime (68%) would not be an acceptable candidate.

  • Frequent flyers are more comfortable with someone who has been convicted of a non-violent crime in such a position (32% among those who took no airline trips in the past year vs. 29% among those who took 1-5 and 45% among those who took over 5).

Checking out the "pre-check"

When asked about their familiarity with the TSA's new pre-check program, wherein travelers can go through a faster security screening (with shoes on and laptops tucked safely away in their bags, no less) if they pay an application fee and meet a series of applicant criteria, six in ten Americans (59%) indicate having at least heard of it, while over a third (36%) indicate being at least somewhat familiar with the program (including the 2% who say they're already either participants or applicants).

  • As one might expect, those who fly more are both more familiar with the program and more likely to be in the system already. Frequent flyers are more likely to indicate both that they're very familiar with the program (4% among those who took no airline trips in the past year vs. 15% among those who took 1-5 vs. 29% among those who took over 5) and that they're already either a participant or an applicant (1% and 2% vs. 13%, respectively)

Strong majorities of Americans believe requirements for pre-check applicants should include:

  • Passing a criminal background check (76%)
  • Submitting to a fingerprint scan (73%)
  • Holding U.S. citizenship (70%)
  • An analysis of past travel habits (56%)
  • Passing a drug test (37%)
  • A check of family and social connections (35%)

When asked what expedited airport screening might be worth to them (in the form of a one-time application fee), those who have traveled by airline in the past year indicate a willingness to pay roughly $50, on average. Among those who have taken over five trips in the past year that figure goes up to about $77. However, only two in ten air travelers (19%) and three in ten more frequent flyers (29%) would pay $85 or more; as it happens $85 is what the TSA charges currently.

But regardless of what they know of it or would pay for it – what do Americans think of it? It turns out that U.S. adults have mixed feelings about this system, with things they like about it but some concerns as well.

On the one hand, a strong majority of Americans believe that separating out pre-screened passengers into a different line will make the screening process quicker for everyone (79%), while only three in ten believe the qualifications for the program infringe on applicants' privacy (29%).

But on the other hand, two-thirds are concerned that lessening security procedures for some passengers through the TSA's pre-check program will result in missing potential threats (68%) and over half don't think it's fair to treat passengers differently from one another (56%).

  • It's worth noting that these two concerns are less pronounced among air travelers – particularly frequent ones:
    • I am concerned that lessening security procedures for some passengers through the TSA's pre-check program will result in missing potential threats (71% among those who took no airline trips in the past year vs. 65% among those who took 1-5 and 54% among those taking over 5).
    • I don't think it's fair to treat passengers differently from one another (60% vs. 50% and 40%, respectively).

Additionally, nearly nine in ten adults (89%) said they would not expect to be allowed onto the plane if they showed up for a flight without their ID, when in fact the TSA can accommodate those showing up sans identification – though they do advise building in extra time for such circumstances and highly recommend traveling with ID for expedited check-in.

To view the full findings, or to see other recent Harris Polls, please visit the Harris Poll News Room.

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Methodology

This Harris Poll was conducted online within the United States between March 12 and 17, 2014 among 2,234 adults (aged 18 and over). Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents' propensity to be online.

All sample surveys and polls, whether or not they use probability sampling, are subject to multiple sources of error which are most often not possible to quantify or estimate, including sampling error, coverage error, error associated with nonresponse, error associated with question wording and response options, and post-survey weighting and adjustments. Therefore, The Harris Poll avoids the words "margin of error" as they are misleading. All that can be calculated are different possible sampling errors with different probabilities for pure, unweighted, random samples with 100% response rates. These are only theoretical because no published polls come close to this ideal.

Respondents for this survey were selected from among those who have agreed to participate in Harris Poll surveys. The data have been weighted to reflect the composition of the adult population. Because the sample is based on those who agreed to participate in our panel, no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.

These statements conform to the principles of disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

The results of this Harris Poll may not be used in advertising, marketing or promotion without the prior written permission of The Harris Poll.

Product and brand names are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective owners.

The Harris Poll® #40, April 24, 2014
By Larry Shannon-Missal, Harris Poll Research Manager

About Nielsen & The Harris Poll

On February 3, 2014, Nielsen acquired Harris Interactive and The Harris Poll.  Nielsen Holdings N.V. (NLSN) is a global information and measurement company with leading market positions in marketing and consumer information, television and other media measurement, online intelligence and mobile measurement. Nielsen has a presence in approximately 100 countries, with headquarters in New York, USA and Diemen, the Netherlands. For more information, visit www.nielsen.com.

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