The terrorist attacks which occurred in September of 2001 brought about enormous geopolitical changes, including military actions still ongoing around the world. A less dramatic legacy, but one with continuing and vast repercussions for the airline industries and their client bases, are the heightened security measures in effect in airports since that time. While these measures vary in severity depending upon current states of national alert, the greater reality is that this substantially increased security has completely altered the experience of travel, as well as how airports function. Modern aviation security has created a relatively new, complex, and challenging set of travel conditions with impacts well beyond that of actual travel.
The traveler today who is not yet middle-aged would very likely be at a loss in an airport setting of the 1970s, or even 1980s. They would probably be astonished at what they would view as an extraordinarily lax atmosphere, one in which boarding a plane was a quick matter of waving a pass and ticket, and possibly a piece of identification. They would not be expected to removes their shoes, belts, and jewelry, nor would they need to empty their pockets into a plastic tub to be x-rayed. No one would be randomly pulled away from a boarding line to be more intrusively examined, and items such as toothpaste, deodorants, and cigarette lighters would be unthinkingly permitted in their carry-on bags.
This was, however, standard practice, and it remained in effect for the bulk of the life of the commercial aviation industry. There were, in decades past, security issues, and most of these centered on the incidents of hijacking which erupted in the 1960s and 1970s, which were largely political actions undertaken by Cuban dissidents: “The model of terminal and aircraft security in the 1960s and early 1970s focused on the threat of hijacking and screened individuals immediately before they boarded the plane, allowing the majority of terminal space to remain public” (Salter, 2008, p. 13). Even this “screening”, however, as implied, was a rapid affair, and one which was primarily concerned with the apparent ethnicity of the traveler.
Moreover, the precautions in airports in past decades were not merely far less stringent, they were as well less intimidating, as the threats they were in place to forestall were largely not considered life and death affairs. Cuban hijackers were seeking, typically, asylum and/or publicity, and actual violence was rare. To that end, airline personnel were uniformly instructed to employ a “common strategy” tactic when confronted with a hijacking situation, and this basically entailed complete compliance with the hijackers. The understanding, based on previous experience, was that the safety of all concerned was greatly facilitated by simply doing what the hijackers ordered, and then letting security and police forces attend to the matter once the aircraft was safely on the ground. This mode of operation remained effective well into the 1980s, as witnessed by the occurrences of the TWA Flight 847 from Athens to Rome: “In 1985, the concept of suicide hijackers was not considered, and the tactic of using deadly force to protect the flight deck was not part of the common strategy to handle hijackings” (Price, Forrest, 2008, p. 55).
While there were distinctly terrorist elements to the lengthy and violent Flight 847 saga, there was nonetheless an agenda different from those prompting the 9/11 attacks. A specific purpose with an identifiable result – that of the Lebanese hijackers effecting the release of political compatriots in Beirut – was the motive, and it was not an overt act of terrorist warfare. Nonetheless, this single incident brought about vast changes in how airport and aircraft security were assessed. The hijackers of Flight 847, unlike most of their predecessors, engaged in a mindless brutality which called for a state of readiness beyond that of a tame, compliant “common strategy”.
The world was, in essence, changing, and political and military motivations were suddenly seizing upon the vulnerability of air travel as a potent weapon. Moreover, and in ways far more threatening to personal safety than a Cuban’s impetus to gain asylum or make a statement, American lives were being increasingly drawn into international conflicts at this level. “Prior to the 9/11 attacks, aviation terrorism was predominantly an overseas threat with significant events geographically concentrated on international flights originating in Europe and the Middle East…” (Elias, 2009, p. 1). As would be evident shortly thereafter, the danger was to begin emanating from home.
Immediate Reactions in Security from 9/11
Even with hijacking concerns, there was in the United States a resilient confidence in the efficiency of the airline industries which translated to a confidence in safety and security. The news occasionally reported stories of hijacking attempts, but these were typically occurring within international travel venues, and consequently of little import to those engaged in domestic travel. Then, the Cuban factor in such crimes had virtually disappeared, adding even further to an American sense of stability. It was widely believed that only those flying internationally need be worried about criminal activity, and even this was a relatively minor concern.
This ease of mind was reflected in actual airport security measures. They were not, as they had never been, a subject of governmental control: “Before 9/11, airport screening in the United States was regulated by the national aviation authority but implemented by the airports and airlines” (Seidenstat, Splane, 2009, p. 110). This permitted individual airports, as well as the airlines, to determine safety protocols within a fairly wide range. As may be expected, commercial interests were very much at play; ease in boarding was a serious inducement to prospective passengers, and no airline wished to create for its customers an unpleasant or extended security experience. Airline promotions and advertisement consistently reinforced the seamless, effortless manner in which a passenger could go from parking a car at the airport to relaxing on a flight.