Airport Security: the Past, Present, Future, the TSA and Tips

airport security past present

Gbaku, Flickr

When Orville and Wilbur Wright rolled down their primitive landing strip in Kill Devil Hills 108 years ago, neither of them had had ever taken airport security into consideration. Those were easier times. Taking a flight was an adventure on its own, and nobody that could afford the luxury of air travel was ever considered a threat to the plane. Since that famous day, things have changed dramatically. Aviation is available to more people than ever, and airplanes have become a way for terrorists to make their statements and beliefs known to the world.

Early Terror Attacks

For decades, flying was just that: You'd show up at the airport, walk right up to the gate, show your ticket and board your plane. At the plane, someone would take your bags and load them in the hold. There were no metal detectors, no X-ray machines, and the only police officers stationed at the airport were there to provide basic security to passengers.

There were obviously security concerns, but they mostly involved preventing stowaways from boarding a plane or keeping an eye out for pickpockets.
First Major Airline Attack Info

In the early '60s, the first signs of organized mass aviation terrorism were seen when airplane hijackings became the method of choice for terrorists. Even though the first recorded attempts at aviation hijacking were reported as early as 1929, the '60s and '70s saw as many as eight commercial airliners hijacked each year.

It wasn't till 1976 that the first major terror attack took place on board an airplane. Nine minutes into a flight, Cubana flight 455 was bombed, forcing the pilot to attempt an emergency landing. Several minutes later, a second bomb exploded, killing all 48 passengers and 25 crew members.

The Metal Detector

Because of these new threats, airport operators scrambled to find an effective way to keep guns, bombs and other weapons off planes.

The solution came from an unexpected source. In 1970, a Finnish mining company called OutoKumou had developed a portal style metal detector specifically designed for security purposes. These new detectors were sold under the Metor brand name, and anyone that has passed through an airport has probably been through hundreds of these detectors.

The Finns eventually sold their technology years ago, but the brand name still lives on as a division of Rapiscan – the same company behind many of the new full body scanners.

The X-ray Machine

During these early days of enhanced airport security, some airports also invested in X-ray machines. We say "some" because the machines were very expensive and were only installed at key airports.

One similarity with current X-ray technology is that people back then also questioned their safety just like we question the safety of the new body scanning machines. Cost of an X-ray machine back in 1973? $25,000, or about $120,000 in today's money. The first systems did not use a conveyor belt, and staff had to place bags inside a cavity and activate the X-ray for up to three seconds.

Airport Security

Inha Leex Hale, Flickr

Nothing has had a more profound an impact on aviation safety than the events of September 11, 2001. After that fateful day, it took just two months for the US Government to create the Transportation Security Administration.

The first task for the TSA was to take over airport security at U.S. airports. Before the TSA, airport security was usually outsourced to one of many third party contractors. Even though some airports still use third parties for their screening, the TSA remains in charge. Other safety measures were implemented onto aircraft, including reinforced cockpit doors.

Shoes Off, Liquids Limited

The TSA appeared to be a relatively effective deterrent, but things were not so safe abroad. On an American Airlines flight over the Atlantic Ocean, British citizen Richard Reid attempted to set fire to explosives in his shoe. Thankfully, his sweaty feet had dampened the fuse to the point that it would not ignite the 10 ounces of explosive materials in his sole. Had he succeeded, the blast would have most likely killed everyone on the plane. Shoe inspections were added.

In August of 2006, British airport security officers arrested 24 people who were planning to blow up US bound aircraft using liquid bombs. These "TATP"-based explosives were impossible to detect using current technology, so an immediate ban on liquids in carry-on luggage was implemented overnight.

The Present: Crotch Bombs and Explosive Printers

On Christmas Day 2009 on Northwest Airlines flight 253, 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab injected several chemicals into a pouch strapped to his legs in an attempt to trigger a homemade bomb. Once again, had he been successful at detonating his 80 grams of explosive materials. He failed.

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano claimed the bomb failed to work "because the system had worked," a statement she was forced to retract the following day. This bomb attempt was the beginning of the demand for greater security scanning technologies.

One of the most recent aviation terror attempts took place on October 29, 2010, when two modified bombs hidden in laser printers were shipped as cargo on their way to the United States from Yemen. Thanks to quick intelligence action, the printers were intercepted before they made it onto their intended planes. The bombs were so well hidden that it took British police hours to actually locate them inside the printer cartridges. Had the bombs gone undetected, they could have blown up jets flying over the United States, raining burning pieces over a large area.

airport security past present

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Whole Body Imaging Machines

After the chemical bomb attempts of 2006, it became obvious that airports and freight systems were not equipped to detect anything other than metal and other objects with their X-ray machines, and new body-scanning technology was rushed in.

The first of these machines were installed at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport followed by several trial locations in the United States. After the failed "crotch bomb" attempt in 2009, the US Government started an accelerated roll-out to more airports. As of February 2011, the machines are installed at over 81 US airports and 18 international airports.

Despite privacy and health concerns, the roll-out is not slowing down. To improve passenger privacy, the TSA is implementing new software to show less of the person using the machine. This new software will detect potential threats without showing the actual body scan.

Improving the Security Process

In 2008, the TSA announced relaxed regulations for carrying laptops through the checkpoint. By using a special TSA approved bag design, laptops, netbooks and tablets could stay inside the bag, as long as the X-ray equipment can "see" the entire machine without obstructions. Since then, laptops measuring less than 11 inches, including tablets and e-book readers, were permitted to remain inside any bag without the requirement for a TSA approved laptop bag.

Other improvements in security made it possible for passengers to bypass the security checkpoint by swiping a special access pass and verifying their fingerprints. The CLEAR system was provided by a commercial company with special approval from the TSA. The network of CLEAR airports shut down in June 2009 but was recently revived in a second attempt to make the suscription service profitable.

In 2009, a U.S. Government-operated system was launched to provide speedier access through customs and immigration. Global Access won't help you get to the plane any faster, but it does allow returning passengers to enter the country with minimal checkpoint delays.

At busy airports such as Orlando, Newark, and Denver, the TSA has also made picking the right security lane a little easier by implementing lanes for specific types of traveler.

The "Self-Select" lanes borrow from the traditional colors denoting ski trail difficulty. Families can take their time in the green lane, where TSA staff have a more patience for people not aware of the latest security rules. Casual travelers can stroll through the lanes labeled blue, and the elite frequent flier who thinks they master the art of airport security can pick the black lane.

The Future of Airport Security

The human element has often been the weakest link in airport security. Despite countries like Israel basing airport security on advanced behavior detection, the US aviation network is too large to completely run using profiling. This means technology will become increasingly important in the security process.

It is hard to predict the future without getting too carried away, but chances are flying in the next decade will involve more advanced full body scanning equipment, more biometric scans and improved profiling through databases.

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