The type of airport security air travelers experience today has its beginnings in 1973. In December 1972, the Federal Aviation Administration issued an emergency rule requiring US airlines to screen all passengers and carry-on baggage by metal detectors and X-ray machines or be searched by hand. Additionally, the FAA ordered that airports station armed guards at boarding checkpoints. Just why passenger and carry-on luggage security screening was mandated by the FAA is simple and comes down to one word: Hijackings.
The Hijacking Era
The first in-air hijacking of a US commercial airliner occurred in 1961, when Antulio Ramirez Ortiz commandeered a National Airlines flight to Cuba after it took off from Florida. Though hijacking incidents remained relatively rare for the next several years, 1969 saw numerous US airliners taken over by hijackers and then diverted to Cuba. The first hijacking of a US plane outside the Western Hemisphere also occurred that year, when two Palestinian terrorists took over TWA Flight 840 after it departed Rome, with the duo subsequently diverting it to Damascus, Syria.
The air piracy activity kicked off by those two Arab terrorists served as the impetus for a wave of terrorism-related hijackings in 1970. In just one instance, terrorists hijacked four Pan American World Airways and TWA airliners at one time and blew them up in the Middle East after releasing all onboard. As we’ve already noted, the most famous hijacking in 1971 was the D.B. Cooper case. He was never found after parachuting out of the airliner he’d commandeered, though a small amount of the ransom money he was paid eventually turned up in the Pacific Northwest wilderness.
Unfortunately, the year 1972 saw no let-up in air piracy on the part of terrorists, political radicals and those looking to gain a large ransom in return for not harming planes and passengers. Numerous violent hijackings occurred in the US that year, which proved to be the final straw for the FAA, leading it to issue its December 1972 emergency directive requiring concerted security searches of both passengers and their carry-on bags beginning in 1973.
Airport Security Success
From 1973 onwards and for the next nearly 29 years, the FAA put airlines and airports in charge of security screening of both passengers and their luggage. It soon enough became evident to the FAA and its security inspectors as well as airlines that airport security could best be quickly accomplished by setting up central screening areas for passengers and their luggage before they entered terminals and concourse areas, creating the first passenger “secure areas” or “sterile areas” in such facilities. No longer would the public, whether flying or just accompanying passengers to their gates, be able to simply walk into airport concourses without passing through metal detectors and having their personal items subject to scrutiny as well.
The FAA’s security directives and the ways in which they were implemented by airlines in 1973 proved greatly successful, with only a single successful hijacking being reported in the US over the next four years. Initially, airport security checkpoints were basic affairs, with walk-through metal detection portals for passengers and either metal detectors or newly designed X-ray machines for their luggage. In cases where a concern on the part of security screening personnel (who were employed by civilian security companies hired by airlines and airports) arose, hand searches were the order of the day.
For many years after 1973, airport security screening practices were fairly low-pressure for air travelers. Usually, flyers could arrive as late as 30 minutes before their scheduled flights began boarding and family and friends could also pass through security with them to see them off at their departure gates. On domestic flights in the early years of security screening, passengers’ checked bags were simply loaded into planes’ cargo holds without any screening taking place. The only checked bags that were checked in those years were the ones loaded onto international flights, and not all such flights were checked consistently.
Of course, airport security checkpoints and the screening practices occurring at them would gradually become more comprehensive in the decades following 1973, including into the 21st century. Eventually, checked baggage also was subjected to screening as well. But private security companies and their employees – who often were underpaid and overworked – were still staffing those checkpoints under contract from airlines and airports.
FAA security inspectors regularly inspected checkpoints and carried out security testing at airport checkpoints, too. By and large, the federal agency did the best it could to balance security screening and its other mission of promoting airlines and air travel in general, all while focusing strongly on ensuring commercial airliners were safe to fly and that their pilots were the best-trained available. The aviation transportation sector contributed greatly to the national bottom line in terms of gross domestic product (GDP), after all, and the FAA felt it was vital that air travelers were as confident in airlines as possible.
September 11, 2001
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 would change everything related to airport security. Checkpoints would take on an entirely new focus and the personnel managing the security screening mission would also come from a completely new federal agency, the Transportation Security Administration. In the next article, we’ll examine the creation of the TSA, its role in airport security and the new, modern and ever-evolving security screening checkpoint.
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.