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Young travelers pass through a security checkpoint at the Des Moines airport July 8. Des Moines airport passengers filed 50 written complaints over a one-year period beginning in June 2011. / Mary Willie/The Register

Travelers passing through the Des Moines International Airport have filed formal grievances at a rate of about once a week with the federal agency that oversees passenger and baggage screening there, records obtained by The Des Moines Register show.

Transportation Security Administration documents indicate the agency fielded 50 written complaints over a one-year period beginning in June 2011 from passengers upset over employees, their behavior and TSA procedures.

The travelers detailed a wide variety of problems they say they experienced before, during and after their pre-flight screenings. Some told of discovering valuable items such as a video camera, underwater digital photography gear, a bottle of gift-wrapped perfume, precious family jewelry and other items missing from their luggage after screenings.

Others complained of being subjected to what they described as embarrassing and unnecessary body searches or being touched inappropriately by overzealous TSA employees during pat downs.

And a leading passenger-rights advocate says the number of passengers treated badly at TSA checkpoints is probably much higher. For every traveler who navigates the cumbersome process for filing a formal complaint, scores of others give up or simply don't bother at all.

TSA officials in Des Moines were not available to respond to specific complaints obtained by the Register under the federal Freedom of Information Act. The federal agency also didn't have data to compare the rate of complaints at the Des Moines airport to complaints made at other airports nationwide.

TSA reported in late 2012 that it screened approximately 1.8 million travelers each day nationwide, and just .01 percent of travelers filed a complaint with the agency.

Regional public affairs manager Carrie Harmon, who is based in Denver, described the 50 complaints filed during the 12-month span as an "extremely small" number given the 1.1 million passengers screened that year at the Des Moines airport.

"TSA strives to screen each passenger in a professional and courteous manner while maintaining a high level of security for all," Harmon said in an email. "At Des Moines International, TSA officers and managers receive many compliments from passengers. Although complaints are rare, we investigate each one - which often includes reviewing video footage - and take appropriate action, if necessary."

Kate Hanni, founder of FlyersRights.org, which bills itself as the nation's largest nonprofit airline consumer group, said she believes the once-a-week rate for complaints at the Des Moines airport represents only a fraction of the actual number of serious incidents.

She said her organization has been contacted by many travelers who found the process for filing formal complaints too difficult, an opinion that was shared by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in a 2012 report called "Transportation Security Administration Could Improve Complaint Process."

"Most complaints, in our opinion, are never filed," said Hanni, a California resident who became an air passenger advocate after she and her family were stuck on an airliner at the Austin, Texas, airport for nine hours in 2006.

The 91 pages of complaints the TSA turned over to the Register contain more serious allegations than the typical annoyances voiced daily by travelers in Des Moines and other airports across the U.S. They also reflect some of the red flags raised recently in government and travel industry studies.

A sampling of passengers interviewed one recent morning provided mixed assessments of their airport experiences, even as the screening lines at the busy TSA checkpoints seemed to be flowing smoothly.

"My experience was horrible," said Jesse O'Neal of Los Angeles, a Church of God minister who was catching a flight out of Des Moines after officiating at his grandson's wedding here. He was unhappy because TSA screeners had ordered him to dump two bottles of hair products he said were "just a fraction" over federal limits.

Virginia Hanson, a 1994 graduate of Norwalk High School who regularly travels on airlines for work, also complained about the screening process as she passed through the airport en route to a job in West Palm Beach, Fla.

"I feel like they are the Gestapo. Seriously, it is pretty bad sometimes," Hanson said of the screeners. "At the small airports, it is not quite as bad. But at the bigger airports the way they treat you is not very good, not very nice. I am not impressed by TSA at all."

Not everybody shared such concerns about the agency, which was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to thwart airline hijackers, suicide bombers and other threats.

"It's usually pretty good," said Todd Renaud of Van Meter, a frequent business traveler catching a commercial flight to Charlotte, N.C. "Long lines are pretty infrequent, and once you get going it passes through pretty quickly."

More than half of the Des Moines passengers who filed official TSA complaints listed missing or stolen property and rude, overzealous screeners - 30 percent each - as their primary concerns, according to the Register's analysis.

Other issues that most often ignited their ire were broken or damaged luggage or personal items, disregard for passengers with disabilities or medical issues, screening delays and long lines.

One woman complained of being forced to undergo "a total body search" at 5 a.m. before boarding a flight from Des Moines to Pensacola, Fla.

The passenger, whose name was redacted from the documents the TSA provided, said she had sprained her wrist a few days before the trip and was wearing a small splint. The device caused the scanner to beep, she said.

She offered to remove it and be re-scanned, but was told by a TSA employee: "No, you beeped, you'll have to have the full body search."

She requested the search be conducted in a private area. Despite her protests that such a procedure seemed unwarranted given the circumstances, two female officers, whom she described as rude, proceeded with a search that lasted approximately 15 minutes, according to the complaint.

"It was embarrassing to be 'touched' more privately than my physician would typically do in a routine exam," said the woman, who wrote that she and her husband were experienced travelers who fly frequently using many airports throughout the U.S. "This experience with the TSA was incredibly upsetting."

Records show the agency responded to her complaint 17 days after it was filed, stating that it regretted "any unprofessional treatment" she may have experienced in Des Moines. It also reminded her she can always ask to speak with a TSA supervisor at the airport if she has problems in the future.

Others who complained formally were parents traveling with children. One mother said she was ordered to dump two bottles of milk she brought to the airport to feed her 18-month-old son in August 2011.

She said she had studied the "Traveling with children" section of the agency's website before leaving home, and was following its guidelines for babies and bottles precisely.

But she said a TSA agent stopped her after scanning and told her the child was "obviously too old for a bottle." When she produced his birth certificate, the agent refused to examine it.

After she disposed of the milk and stood in line for a second security check, she said: "I literally had to run as to not miss my plane."

The TSA responded by saying, "We regret you found your experience to be less than satisfactory."

Travelers with disabilities or other medical conditions are those who most often complain about how they are treated, studies show.

One disabled military veteran suffering from a spinal cord injury said he was patted down and told to remove his shoes at a checkpoint in June 2011 while traveling from Des Moines to Washington, D.C.

The passenger, a national director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, told screeners he was well-versed on the Americans with Disabilities Act and that he knew the TSA's rules offered alternatives for travelers with medical disabilities or conditions making it difficult to remove footwear.

He said TSA employees swabbed his shoes and asked him to have a seat while they figured out what to do next. After waiting 15 minutes and fearing he would miss his flight, he ultimately removed his shoes and had his bag inspected a second time.

"This is not appropriate and my rights as a disabled flyer were violated," the man said in his complaint. "I would hope this will be straightened out before the next time I fly."

The TSA responded by thanking him for raising the issue and reiterated its own policies allowing other screening options for travelers with disabilities or other medical conditions.

Stolen or missing items were among the most common complaints heard from Des Moines airport travelers.

One passenger flying from Des Moines to Santiago, Chile, in October 2011 complained that numerous items were missing from his luggage following that flight, including expensive volleyball shoes and hunting apparel. His bags contained stickers showing they had been opened and inspected by the TSA, he said.

The agency responded by reciting its procedure for screening and searching baggage, and directed him to a form he could complete if he wished to file a claim.

"We regret you were unsatisfied with the manner in which your bags were handled,'' a TSA customer service representative said in an email.

Allegations of theft, although rare, are taken very seriously, said Harmon, the TSA regional spokeswoman. The federal agency has zero tolerance for theft, it investigates all allegations, and it terminates guilty employees, she added.

All bag searches are conducted in the presence of other officers and in rooms equipped with cameras, Harmon said.

"TSA also contacts law enforcement if we find evidence of theft. In the last five years, not a single transportation security officer at Des Moines has been found guilty of stealing from passengers or passengers' bags," Harmon said.



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: A look at one airport's passenger complaints to TSA

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