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The Evolution of Airport Security: Part I

By Kelly Hoggan

Airport security in the 1950s was almost nonexistent.

One thing all airports have in common, and which all air travelers encounter to one degree or another, is security. At minimum, when you fly commercially you must allow both you and your possessions to be examined, either by some sort of electronic device or by specially trained security officers, or both. Meanwhile, your checked luggage also undergoes scrutiny. Modern airport security is a wonder of efficiency and thoroughness for sure. But the security you see today didn’t always exist and there was actually a time when flyers and their baggage didn’t undergo any sort of examination at all.

United Airlines Flight 629

If there’s one event that’s responsible for the beginning of airport security it’s United Airlines flight 629 on November 1, 1955. Shortly after takeoff from Denver, Colorado on its way to Portland, Oregon, Flight 629 exploded in mid-air and all aboard lost their lives. Subsequent investigation revealed that the son of one of the passengers, looking to cash in on her insurance policy, had placed a sack of dynamite and a timer in her suitcase. In those days, neither passengers nor any of their belongings and baggage were checked or scrutinized in any way and boarding a plane was similar to boarding a train or a bus; you simply handed your ticket over to an agent and then walked on board.

Modern Security Measures Begin

United Flight 629 in 1955 marked the first major act of violence against US airlines and their passengers, and authorities understood that something needed to be done about it. Over the next several years, the Federal Aviation Administration worked on developing security measures to prevent future attacks against commercial airlines and by 1961 was ready to institute them. That year saw the addition of armed guards on commercial flights, but only when requested by the FBI or the airlines themselves. Such requests were rare, however.

Airline Hijackings

A wave of hijackings in the late 1960s and early 1970s prompted the FAA to begin implementing tighter passenger security screening measures, with the first of those being a hijacker psychological profile. Used by airline ticket agents, the profile asked them to assess whether passengers were exhibiting odd behavior, such as a lack of eye contact or little concern for their luggage. Air travelers believed by ticket agents to indeed be behaving oddly would then be subjected to additional screening. Other security steps taken by the FAA included the creation of a sky marshals service known as the Customs Air Security Officers Program as well as the Explosive Detection Canine Team Program. Security directed at airliners and passengers was still mostly in the background up through the end of 1972, though.

During that time, several notable hijackings had occurred, including the now legendary case of D.B. Cooper in November 1971. Cooper was a passenger who claimed to have a bomb, forced the plane he was on to land, was paid a ransom by the airlines, had the plane take off again and then parachuted out of it into the night sky over the Pacific Northwest, never to be seen or heard from again. These hijackings, which were showing no serious sign of abating, presented an intolerable situation for airlines and passengers alike and the federal government knew they had to be stopped.

Mass Screening

By 1973, the FAA was ready to begin requiring the kind of security screening of passengers and baggage that travelers today are most familiar with. New security measures put in place included requiring commercial airlines to use X-ray machines, metal detection devices and personal searches to screen all passengers and their baggage for weapons and explosives. In fact, air travelers are still subjected to these measures to this day, though the ways in which security at the modern airport is applied is much more advanced than was the case in 1973.

In the next post, we’ll look at early airport security checkpoints, the electronic devices and personal screening practices initially instituted, their early evolution and how the entire airport security environment took on much, much greater significance and importance after September 11, 2001.

Kelly Hoggan, Founder and CEO of H4 Solutions, previously served as assistant administrator for operations at the Transportation Security Administration. In that role, he was responsible for aircraft and checkpoint security operations at the nation's 400-plus commercial airports.

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