WASHINGTON - Hand sanitizer makes it through security in one airport, then it's confiscated at another. Screening lines back up because only two of six lanes are open. And then there's the occasional all-too-intimate pat down.
Those complaints and other frustrations make the nation's airport security agency about as popular as the IRS.
Indeed, only the Federal Emergency Management Agency, still suffering from its mishandling of Hurricane Katrina, ranks below the Transportation Security Administration among the least-liked federal agencies, according to a new Associated Press-Ipsos poll.
TSA tied with the perennially unpopular tax collectors in a favorability ranking of a dozen executive branch agencies.
"I am so frustrated with TSA that I am ready to stop flying," one traveler wrote in a Sept. 7 complaint filed with the agency. "I'm sure this doesn't matter to you because my tax dollars are already paying you."
The AP poll, conducted Monday through Wednesday, found that the more people travel, the less they like TSA. But it also found that 53 percent of air travelers think TSA does a "very" or "somewhat" good job.
The inconvenience of security was the top complaint of air travelers, mentioned by 31 percent of those who had taken at least one trip in the past year. That figure rose to 40 percent for those who have taken five to 10 trips.
TSA officials say they understand the frustration and are working to minimize hassles. They say while it can be annoying, airport screening is essential because intelligence reports show aviation remains a top target for terrorists.
A review of complaints the traveling public lodged with TSA in September helps explain the low standing. While passengers generally understand TSA's mission, they could do without certain parts of the pre-boarding experience.
Take, for example, a mother and daughter traveling out of the Dallas/Fort Worth airport on Sept. 4. In an e-mailed complaint to TSA, the mother said the TSA screener was rude and inconsiderate.
While she was in secondary screening, the mother was made to face away from her daughter.
On Sept. 3, a man leaving Orlando, Fla., filed a lengthy complaint because he said a screener touched him "like no man ever has - not even my doctor." "This type of bodily inspection, privately or publicly, is undignified," he wrote. "Have terrorists succeeded in making us that scared of each other?"
Nearly 9,000 such complaints flowed into TSA between January and October of this year, and the agency made a selection of them available at the request of the Associated Press.
Another frequent complaint is that security restrictions seem pointless and arbitrary.
"The security is a joke, it's an absolute joke," said James Atkinson, a Massachusetts businessman.
Atkinson said he has sent dozens of complaints to TSA and the Federal Aviation Administration over the past 10 years, and has never heard back. His complaints range from unmanned checkpoints to the absurdity of the rule restricting liquids in carry-on luggage to 3 ounces or less.
TSA responds to every complaint it receives, said spokeswoman Ellen Howe, adding that each complaint is forwarded to the federal security director at the airport in question.
Out of all the contacts TSA receives, only about 2 percent are complaints, Howe said.
She also defended the agency's 43,000 screeners and said the public needs to know that they are "good people motivated by the mission."
Bill Lyons, a union official who is trying to organize screeners and get them bargaining rights, said many problems arise because TSA has understaffed the checkpoints. "These folks are under tremendous pressure," he said.