TSA survey reveals 93% of travelers satisfied with passenger experience

TSA agent Joshua Antelo explains to the Chin family the first step of removing their dog from its carrying case during a demonstration to show the proper way to bring a pet through security at Dulles International Airport.

TSA agent Joshua Antelo explains to the Chin family the first step of removing their dog from its carrying case during a demonstration to show the proper way to bring a pet through security at Dulles International Airport. Craig Hudson for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Even more travelers were confident in the Transportation Security Administration’s ability to keep air travel safe.

A national survey of more than 13,000 air travelers in 16 U.S. airports administered by the Transportation Security Administration indicates that 93% of travelers are satisfied with their passenger experience at security checkpoints.

The survey — the first TSA has undertaken in its 22-year history in which it is publicly sharing results — also revealed 94% of travelers surveyed expressed confidence in TSA officers’ ability to keep air travel safe. Further, more than 3 in 4 respondents (78%) said they experienced “no challenges” at security checkpoints — an “incredible” finding given that TSA now screens more than 2 million passengers daily, according to TSA customer service branch manager Niki French.

“I did not in a million years think 78% would report not experiencing any challenges at checkpoints,” French said in a December interview with Nextgov/FCW, acknowledging the stress typically involved in air travel. French, who began her career at TSA as a frontline security officer and now champions customer experience across the agency with a small team, said passenger confidence may be the most impressive datapoint from the survey.

“The [94%] confidence finding is really important because that’s why TSA officers come to work every day,” French said. “Our job is to keep air travel safe, and to have that confidence rating from the public is really meaningful.”

Administered in early May, the survey helped TSA segment and differentiate the experience it provides passengers from passengers’ overall journeys, which include travel to and from airports and engaging with airlines. The results come as TSA just broke a record for air travel, screening 2.9 million passengers on Nov. 26. 

Other notable findings include:

  • 95% of participants positively reported that the TSA officers they interacted with were professional.
  • 95% of participants positively reported that they were treated with respect during the screening process on the day they took the survey.
  • Of the few participants who were not satisfied with their overall experience at the checkpoint, 50% experienced some degree of stress before arriving at the checkpoint.
  • Of the few who were not satisfied with their overall experience and responded that their wait time was not reasonable, 54% also reported their experience before entering the checkpoint as somewhat or highly stressful.

The survey results also indicate prior customer experience training provided to TSA frontline staff is paying off, according to Rachel Schwind, customer service branch support at TSA and program manager at ASI Government. In one longitudinal finding — comparing data to a smaller survey TSA conducted in 2019 across five airports wherein findings were not publicly released — Schwind told Nextgov/FCW 18% more passengers understood why further screening procedures were necessary in this year’s survey.

“One of the biggest improvements from the 2019 survey and this survey was in the score around understanding why additional screening was required,” Schwind said. “What was awesome about that is that it’s an area TSA has focused a lot of energy on.”

After 2019, TSA launched “CX Demystified,” which trained thousands of TSA frontline staff on the importance of providing superior customer experience and using clear communication when engaging with travelers.

“People buy the why,” Schwind said. “They want to arrive at destinations safely and if you explain to them why they’re being selected for a gunshot residue test or a pat down or what was wrong in their bag that was flagged by a sensor, that makes them feel better about what happens next. It’s not an easy thing for officers to navigate.”

While the results were overwhelmingly positive, French said TSA has one area to improve on: 75% of people did not use any TSA materials to prepare for their trip.

“That’s an area we know we’ve got to figure out,” French said. “Passengers want more communication, and that’s not something we were super surprised about, but basically there is no way to over communicate with the traveling public when they are coming through the checkpoints. They want to know what is happening, they want to understand what is going on, and they are just looking for more communication during that process.”

French said TSA could look to incorporate text messaging or increased signage to address communication issues in 2024. However, she said the agency is much less likely to make good on one frequent suggestion by respondents regarding the question, “What could TSA do better to support you?”

Many people, French said, reported that, “TSA should give out snacks in line.”

The results of TSA’s survey were also shared with airlines and airports and will soon be posted on TSA’s website. 

‘A partnership’ between federal employees and contractors

French and Schwind said recent guidance from the Office of Management and Budget and President Biden’s 2021 executive order on customer experience has elevated its importance across the government ranks. Those documents have also added more requirements for high impact service providers like TSA, which will secure some 2.5 million Americans daily during the holiday season.

Conducting and executing a national survey of passengers, wherein results will be shared publicly, represented a major challenge for French and her small team — one she said they would not have been able to pull off without outstanding contractor support.

“Both of our teams are small, and I think that’s a bonus [that] we work so well together,” French said. “I don’t separate out federal staff from contractor staff, everyone helps with everything. I don’t care that [Schwind] is a contractor, she’s an extension of my team. What makes us successful is that they didn’t just come in and perform check-the-box work, they’re getting in the nitty-gritty together.”

Schwind’s team consisted of three people, including two industrial organizational psychologists who focused on the survey’s design, validity and question construction, as well as its results. Execution on the contract began in November 2022, giving the team — totaling 7 feds and 3 full-time contractors — only a few months to design and get the survey approved, write a 50-page communications plan, engage more than 200 stakeholders and train nearly 100 survey administrators.

“When you have a team of three full-time people, every one of them has to be a power player,” Schwind said. “Another reason the partnership works so well is that we’re in-the-trenches kind of people who love to get into the weeds and help organizations with transformation. I’m not always trying to sell [French] on stuff, we’re here to help them accomplish their mission.”

French said that while there’s no sure-fire way to guarantee such contractor support, she said federal customer experience practitioners can up their odds by drafting strategic contract language. In this case, French said she was “intentionally vague” with such language, with some survey-specific requirements but enough “wiggle room to figure out the rest of the deliverables.”

“Journey maps are important, but to me that is not what I need help with, but I need help with running the survey, designing courses and actually getting in there and doing the work,” French said.