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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — For decades prior to Sept. 11, 2001, air travelers could arrive at the airport 30 minutes before their flight, breeze through security with a pocket knife dangling from their belt, and take their seat with a carry-on full of eight-ounce toothpaste tubes.
“Security was really not anything that you thought about as part of your travel process,” said Dr. Janet Bednarek, author of "Cities and the Jet Age: US Airports Since 1945" and a history professor at the University of Dayton. “That changed after 9/11.”
Of all the changes that came to the world after the deadliest terrorist attacks in U.S. history, none is as obvious, or as inextricably linked to the tragedy as the modifications to air travel.
“Where you are most likely in your life to be reminded of 9/11 is at the airport,” Bednarek said. And from high-tech security gates to in-terminal Ferris wheels, these changes aren’t going away any time soon.
Upon the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Spectrum News 1 looked back at how airports and air travel have changed in the past two decades and ahead at what comes next.
The post-9/11 era of air travel officially began on Nov. 19, 2001, when then-President George W. Bush signed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act. The law created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), federalizing a decentralized and often disorganized airport security system and setting a slew of other airport updates into motion.
Within the next several years, many changes began taking place behind the scenes, with the installation of machines to screen baggage for explosives, programs to arm pilots, and retrofits to make cockpits more secure. Emerging threats soon resulted in security measures that were more obvious to air travelers, namely the requirement to remove shoes during security screenings and the limits on flying with liquids.
These often time-consuming procedures represented a major shift in the way travelers experienced the airport. Prior to 9/11, Bednarek said, “there was a concern that if the security regime was too onerous, it would discourage people from flying. They wanted to make it as frictionless and as quick as possible.”
Pre-9/11 air travel was also warmer. Family and friends could accompany travelers to the gate and see them off as they boarded, or greet them the moment they stepped off the plane. After the attacks, the TSA only allowed ticketed passengers beyond security, though those standards are starting to relax at some airports.
None of this slowed the pace of air travel. By 2016, the number of passengers on U.S. flights eclipsed 700 million for the first time, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. The crush of passengers, along with strict security protocols began to make trouble. In 2016, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing on long TSA wait times and threats by some airports to ditch the TSA in favor of private companies.
That never happened, and the TSA has only grown since. It’s now a 50,000-member workforce that screens more than 2 million passengers each day. Agents confiscate items that range from the clearly dangerous to the obviously unthreatening.
Clint Henderson, senior news editor at the travel site The Points Guy, said while some of TSA’s rules “seem a bit excessive,” on balance, he thinks they’ve been effective. “Overall, I think at The Points Guy, we do feel safer,” he said.
“But maybe it’s time to relax some of these really absurd rules a little bit,” Henderson added.
For some, the rules were more than absurd — they were traumatic. In the years after 9/11, the phrase "flying while Muslim" came to encompass the increasingly common racial profiling and sideways glances many Muslims experienced at airports. High-profile cases saw Muslim travelers ejected from flights for discussing the safest seats on the plane, wearing shirts with Arabic writing, or praying prior to take off. The TSA maintains that Sikhs wearing turbans, or women wearing hijabs may be asked "to remove the head covering in a private screening area."
According to TSA agents who worked at Logan International Airport in Boston, racial profiling extended to Black and Hispanic travelers, too. “They just pull aside anyone who they don’t like the way they look — if they are Black and have expensive clothes or jewelry, or if they are Hispanic,” one agent told The New York Times of his fellow TSA agents. Even if TSA agents don’t discriminate, the technology they use might. According to a 2019 ProPublica report, the agency’s full-body scanners often return false alarms for hair styles popular with Black women, forcing them to be subjected to hair pat-downs.
While TSA may be the most visible post-9/11 force working to secure airports, it hasn’t been the most effective, said Steven Hooper, Assistant Professor of Global Security and Intelligence at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. That distinction, Hooper said, belongs to the Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF), which were around before 9/11, but increased dramatically in number after.
"It’s hard to prove a negative, but there’s a long list of incidents that didn’t happen because of the Joint Terrorism Task Forces," said Hooper, who ran one such task force when he was with the FBI.
Another change Hooper has observed has taken place onboard flights, where he said there is now a more robust “culture of security” among passengers. “I think that has probably been the most significant change,” he said. “People are willing to get involved now for safety and security.”
With changes in airport security came changes in the way airports are designed. Recent renovations at major American hubs suggest that the security procedures travelers currently experience are not going away any time soon.
“At [Reagan] National Airport, they built a new building, essentially,” Bednarek said. “So when you get to the airport now, the first place you go into is where you go through security.” The airport explains that this will provide passengers with “an improved post-security experience — alleviating gate area congestion while expanding access to a variety of shopping, dining and seating options.”
Prior to 9/11, airports didn’t have nearly as many of those options because they didn’t need to. But once Americans started showing up at the airport one, two, or even three hours early, that began to change. According to a 2017 survey of nearly 5,000 Americans, the average airport wait time was three hours and 20 minutes, which travelers spent eating, drinking, and shopping, among other activities.
“You’ve got malls, Ferris wheels, amusement parks,” Henderson said. “This huge, huge industry has grown up around airports and appealing to consumers who are there two hours early.”
He described one possible way to experience the airport in the post-9/11 era that did not exist before: “Get to the airport three hours early, go to the lounge and have a free meal, go shopping at the Duty Free Store, get some booze, buy some fancy perfume.”
Not all changes to the airport landscape were glamorous. Take the humble cellphone lot. In the years after 9/11, as airports attempted to decrease congestion outside terminals, cellphone lots opened to allow drivers to wait for a call from a passenger in need of pickup, rather than circling the airport.
Airport security has been a constant in the two decades since 9/11, but the technology used to conduct that security has seen major advancements. In the past five years, the TSA has introduced automated screen lanes, begun testing facial-recognition technology, and started dabbling in artificial intelligence.
Hooper compared the future of airport security to the way casinos are monitored. “Behind the scenes in some room, there are a bunch of TSA guys and they’re watching the monitors as artificial intelligence technology assesses if you have any kind of weapon, explosives, sharp objects, whatever,” he said.
The goal of many of these technological advancements, which can be as simple as allowing passengers to leave their hands down during security screenings, is to speed things up as airports prepare for the coming onslaught of travelers in the next two decades. According to one estimate, 7.2 billion passengers will take to the air in 2035, nearly double the number that flew in 2016.