Most of us don’t know how easy it was for people to arrive at the gate of the airports before the 11th of September 2001, as you could just arrive some minutes before your flight. Nowadays, you have to wait many minutes, if not hours, in line at the security check before boarding.
It was so easy to pass through the airport security that on the 11th of September 2001, the nineteen terrorists who highjacked four commercial jetliners, brought deadly weapons inside the airplane even if they did pass through metal detectors at four security checkpoints. This allowed them to commandeer those airplanes and use them as jet-filled missiles as they were flying them into the Twin Towers, the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. At that time, airport security was carried out by private contractors, usually hired by the airlines, with few federal standards. Moreover, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) used to allow knives of up to 4 inches in length on board an aircraft, so even if the hijackers had been caught with their knives prior to boarding the plane, the screeners would have handed it right back to them. The 9/11 Commission Report states that “By 8:00 AM on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, they had defeated all the security layers that America’s civil aviation security system had in place to prevent a hijacking”.
After 9/11 in the US the Aviation and Transportation Security Act created the TSA and luggage start to be screened by X-rays, while in Europe EASA was legally established in 2002 and began its work in 2003. Always in 2003, in the US, pilots started to carry firearms on board. Furthermore, some other cockpit protections were put in force, like the requirement to reinforce cockpit doors on their entire fleet of planes. Moreover, as we know, now we have limits on the quantity of liquids that one can carry on board, and there are also air marshals that play a passenger role. For more security, starting from 2008, TSA started to use canine units in order to screen luggage for possible explosives or drugs.
However, as we have seen in recent years, every measure can be avoided by intruders in one way or another, as in 2016 three suicide bombers who had been turned away at an airport security checkpoint opened fire with semiautomatic weapons before detonating explosives belts at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul. This deadly attack came after a similar one that took place at an airport terminal and subway station in Brussels. These incidents raised concerns about security in areas where large groups of people usually wait at baggage claim, line up at check-in counters and kiosks, or queue up to go through security checkpoints.
In 2017, some airlines, in collaboration with TSA, began trials of facial recognition software that allows passengers faces to be their boarding passes. The downside of this system is that this and other biometric-screenings methods, which could allow the government to track your whereabouts at home and abroad, raise significant privacy concerns.
Airport security will continue to improve as technology evolves, with AI getting involved in this process too. This may help to discover certain behaviors among passengers or to discover faster potentially harmful objects at the X-ray screening of luggage. In the years ahead, there will surely be more and more safety features introduced on board airplanes and on the ground.