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Originally published March 10, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 10, 2008 at 7:16 PM

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Mad at the TSA? Post your gripes about air travel on its new blog

Passengers can air complaints about TSA and airport security on new blog

The Associated Press

NEW YORK — The name alone oozes suspense: "Evolution of Security," and the tagline adds a special thrilling kick: "Terrorists Evolve. Threats Evolve. Security Must Stay Ahead. You Play A Part."

It's not often that the federal government invites people to air their grievances. But the Transportation Security Administration is welcoming people to complain, criticize and question TSA operations on its "Evolution of Security" blog — www.tsa.gov/blog — which went live Jan. 30. A TSA blogger team reads all of the comments and posts almost all of them, no matter how harsh or how cranky the poster.

The blog's goal is to help TSA connect with passengers, says Christopher White, a TSA spokesman and a blogger. White and several others post four or five times a week with few editorial constraints.

"We are posting, 'why we do what we do,' 'how we do it,' and then the public is blogging back and commenting," says White. "It's a great way to get in touch with people."

TSA Administrator Kip Hawley kicked things off, with a "Welcome" message, where he wrote that in the airport rush, "there is no time to talk, to listen, to engage with each other" and not much opportunity for security officers to explain why certain policies are in place.

"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," he said. "Our ambition is to provide here a forum for a lively, open discussion of TSA issues."

But some of the bluntness of the posters shows how deep public contempt for the TSA runs: "When can we quit this charade and begin to carry our water and toothpaste with us again?" and "I think you seriously need to stop stealing toiletries from people." An Associated Press-Ipsos poll in December found that only the Federal Emergency Management Agency ranked below the TSA among the least-liked federal agencies.

One poster wrote: "DHS (Department of Homeland Security) and TSA are fundamentally broken. Disband both immediately and return our civil liberties," before launching into a tirade, "Thank goodness Richard Reid did not conceal something in his underpants or these people would be strip-searching every poor grandma..."

When asked if TSA was worried about such harsh criticism, White responded: "Not at all. We welcome that feedback." He said there is not much censorship on the posts; comments are deleted if they contain foul language, threats, attacks, or require TSA to divulge sensitive information. A Delete-O-Meter on the blog shows how many comments have been deleted so far — 112 as of early March.

So far, the blog has gotten a lukewarm response from aviation analysts, who praise the TSA for listening but wonder whether the agency can really take action in response.

"There are a lot of legitimate grievances and complaints from the traveling public," says Richard Bloom, director of terrorism, intelligence and security studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. "To collect them and read them and think about them and take action is a positive thing to do."

But "only so much can be done to react to public feedback," he says, because of budget and political constraints. For example, can TSA pay screeners more and provide better training?

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White says in less than one week, posters impacted TSA operations. TSA learned that certain airports were requiring passengers to remove all electronics from carry-ons. TSA investigated and found out that local TSA offices set up the exercise. TSA had the exercises stopped and posted a "HOORAY BLOGGERS!" message.

"Blackberrys, cords and iPods began to flow through checkpoints like the booze was flowing on Bourbon Street Tuesday night (Fat Tuesday of course)," the post read in language that was surprisingly glib for a government agency. (White says the blog is written in a style that is consistent with the blogosphere.)

TSA is also using the blog to solicit feedback on "Black Diamond," says White, a pilot program that allows passengers to choose a security line based on how comfortable they feel with the process.

"Because of things like the blog, we have decided to expand this program," he says.

Of course, not everyone's gripes can or will be addressed.

But posting to the blog is more constructive than complaining at the security checkpoint, says Jerry Chandler, a travel blogger for cheapflights.com.

"You can do more than vent," says Chandler. "You can put yourself in a position where people are going to listen."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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