Those who flew on an airplane before 1973 might remember. For the rest of us, it sounds surreal and almost unfathomable.
Airport security was nonexistent. No one worried about liquids in their carry-ons, removing their shoes, or full body scans. There were no lines to get to boarding gates. In fact, anyone could walk up to the gate. Eventually security checks arrived in the 1970s, but they consisted of a breezy pass through a metal detector and an X-ray of your bag.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people, security has been anything but breezy. In response to the attacks, the George W. Bush administration formed the Transportation Security Administration to finally address airline safety. This November marks 20 years since the TSA began, a watershed moment that forever changed the way we think about air travel and the letters T, S, and A.
But to understand how the TSA came to redefine the way we travel, it’s necessary to look back at how poorly airport security was handled prior to 9/11. Airlines had a policy of agreeing to the demands of the hijackers who were a frequent presence in the skies through the 1960s. Even worse, there was minimal, if any, passenger screening. This was the start of the culture that eventually turned increasingly deadly.
“In the 1960s, you could basically walk from the curb, to the plane, and up the boarding stairs,” said Brendan I. Koerner, author of “The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking.” “The first time anyone would ask to see anything, including your ticket, was at the top of the boarding stairs. So there were no magnetometers, no one searched your bag.”
But contrary to appearances, even during those revered golden years of aviation when people dressed up for air travel and leggy flight attendants pushed carts of lobster Thermidor and champagne down the aisles, airline security protocols were desperately needed. The bottom line was that there was no security in place because no one wanted to pay for it.
Throughout the 1960s, there were an average of 30 to 40 hijackings a year, sometimes more than one on the same day. Instead of spending millions on security to thwart the hijackers, airlines simply went along with their demands. According to Koerner, complying with the criminals’ demands was much less expensive than adding security. Additionally, airlines didn’t want to give passengers the impression that flying was unsafe.
The hijackings, particularly from 1961 to 1969, were generally nonviolent incidents. Most of the hijackers wanted to divert flights to Cuba. Many who hijacked planes were originally from Cuba, and after the revolution they thought if they hijacked a plane and took it to Cuba they’d be celebrated by Fidel Castro. The act was so common that cockpits contained maps of the Caribbean, pilots were told about the landing facilities at Havana’s José Martí International Airport, and they were given cards with rudimentary Spanish so they could communicate with potential hijackers.
“It was almost kind of a joke,” said Janet Bednarek, a history professor at the University of Dayton who specializes in aviation. “There would be punchlines like, ‘Oh, I flew to Miami and I was so disappointed. We went right into Miami. We didn’t go into Cuba.’ The hijackings were scary, but nobody got hurt.”
The hijackers could easily make these threats and demands because they were armed. They boarded planes with guns and knives and brandished them while making their demands.
As airline analyst Henry Harteveldt explained, “You could bring anything on the airplane that you wanted, as long as it fit in your carry-on bag.” Even the checked bags loaded into the underbelly of the plane did not go through screening.
But as the hijackings of the late 1960s and early 1970s grew more violent and threats became more outrageous, those laissez-faire attitudes toward airline security began to backfire. The simple hijackings to Cuba gave way to acts of violence and demands for cash, guns, and whatever could be extorted. Planes were being hijacked to South America and Africa. Passengers began demanding action.
“Hijacking was no longer a joke,” Bednarek said. “So then the big debate was who was going to be responsible for security. Was it going to be the federal government, or was it going to be the airlines? Congress essentially decided it was going to be the airlines. There were calls for a federal airport security division at that time, but Congress decided not to fund it.”
On Jan. 5, 1973, the FAA required all airlines to start screening passengers and their luggage. The airlines — long passive players on the question of security — were now the ones in charge of the process. Here’s where the trouble really begins for airline security in the United States.
“It was very much security theater,” Harteveldt, the airline analyst, said of the primitive process. “It was designed to try to tell hijackers, ‘We’re going to make it difficult for you to hijack a plane.’ But it was never a system that would make hijacking impossible. And the thought of anyone trying to do something that we saw on 9/11 was clearly never considered.”
It was designed to be convenient. Passengers could roll up to the airport 20 minutes before departure and still make their flight. Loved ones could say goodbye at the gate. But perhaps the most unfortunate part of the plan was that airlines contracted out with private companies for security personnel, and those contracts generally went to the lowest bidder.
“By the late 1990s and early 2000s, there hadn’t been a hijacking in a very long time and alert was low,” Koerner said. “The people that were often hired by these private security firms to keep airplanes safe had training that consisted of watching a video, and that’s it.”
As Harteveldt put it, the job of airport security was “akin to a job in fast food.” He said airport security officers were not treated with respect and passengers were rarely challenged. Worst of all, potential weapons, such as small knives and box cutters, were still allowed on board. Not even the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, by Libyan terrorists in December 1988 prompted a change. There were 270 fatalities, including 190 American citizens.
“Unfortunately, in the dispute between the government and the airlines over who would foot the bill, the compromise was the worst possible solution,” he said.
It was against this backdrop that Al Qaeda terrorists were able to pull off the deadliest attack in history, and the TSA was formed, finally centralizing airport security under the government rather than relying on airlines to do the job.
Twenty years later, it’s difficult to envision a time when TSA officers weren’t asking to see a boarding pass or reminding us to remove water bottles from our carry-ons. It’s become just another part of travel. Those quick trips to the airport are as distant as the lobster Thermidor dinners and flight attendants in miniskirts.
“We’ve done a complete 180 on security,” said Daniel Velez, spokesman for the New England region of the TSA. “We have more than 430 federalized airports around the country where the TSA is screening passengers, baggage, and cargo. We’re even doing things pre-arrival with intelligence and crew vetting. The FBI maintains a no-fly list that we monitor every single day. Our officers now go through basic training for behavior detection. They’re constantly monitoring folks looking out for signs.”
The TSA also has explosive-detecting canines, credential verification that ensures people can’t board with a fake ID, officers trained to spot suspicious behavior (Velez declined to describe what those behaviors are), and thousands of employees working behind the scenes. That’s all happening even before you approach the checkpoint at the airport. Velez said the agency employs approximately 65,000 people, and about 50,000 of them are the officers that work to screen passengers.
But Velez also understands the frustration people have with the TSA. No one likes (or claims to fully understand) the liquids rule. Some are cranky they have to take off their shoes because one man once got through security with a bomb in his. The latest point of contention among some passengers has been wearing a mask. So far the TSA has reported about 4,000 incidents of passengers refusing to wear masks at security, or refusing to wear them correctly. Those passengers are denied boarding.
There is more coming. More advanced screening equipment, experiments with facial recognition, and the question of checking COVID-19 vaccination records. Velez said at the moment there is no plan in place to start checking vaccination cards or vaccine passports, but if tasked, the TSA will take on the responsibility.
The trade-off of having a massive government agency with a nearly $8 billion budget ($2.4 billion of that comes from the $5.60 September 11th Security Fee attached to each ticket) with officers working in high-stress environments is that passengers, already on edge getting to their flights, are naturally critical.
Shawna Malvini Redden researched the TSA for 10 years for her book “101 Pat-Downs: An Undercover Look at Airport Security and the TSA,” and found that while most passengers understand that the TSA is there for their safety, they’re not thrilled with the process itself.
“I didn’t interview anyone who was like, ‘Go Team TSA!’ I don’t think there was anyone who thought that everything was effective,” she said. “The airport security context is designed to provoke stress and provoke emotion. It’s supposed to be intimidating. The number one fear is of being late and missing your plane. So you have all this stress built up before you even stepped foot in the terminal.”
Redden is critical of some of the agency’s policies and procedures (”I’ve been felt up more times than I can count”), but is very sympathetic to the officers who are sometimes mistreated by passengers.
But this is the legacy of airlines and the federal government dropping the ball on security for decades, and the government getting involved in the process only after thousands died. It’s the legacy of the shoe bomber, the underwear bomber, and 19 terrorists with box cutters. It’s not perfect — prohibited items still get by officers — but officers apprehend weapons and other unsafe (or simply bizarre) items everyday. It’s a necessary inconvenience.
Despite recognizing the need for the organization, those who were frequent flyers prior to 9/11 still carry fond memories of the days when the airport experience was a little more simple, and a lot more romantic.
“I think what I miss most is seeing my husband at the gate when I got off the plane,” Bednarek, the professor, said. “I especially miss when I could get off the plane and hand him my bag and he would carry it for me. It was such a nice welcome home experience. It was such a different time.”
Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther and Instagram @chris_muther.