Passengers walked through metal detectors and their bags were subjected to x-ray screening since the 1960’s. Individuals who were not ticketed passengers were allowed to proceed through security as well, accompany friends and family members to the departure gate and watch the plane depart. Before the terrorist attacks the actual security access areas of our airports were not, truly “secure”. The access control of the airports was not as protected as the government had intended them to be.
For example, Gerald Dillingham, Director of Civil Aviation Issues, reported to the National Commission on Terrorists Attacks upon the United States: “In May 2000, Department of Transportation Inspector General agents used fictitious law enforcement badges and credentials to gain access to secure areas, bypass security checkpoints at two airports, and walk unescorted to aircraft departure gates. These agents could have been carrying threats to the aircraft or its passengers. With their fake credentials, the agents were able to access secure areas 70% of the time” (Dillingham, Conference Speaker).
At that time there were no real regulations with regards to employee or passenger background checks. Procedures for airline employees have changed drastically, as well. Lynn Amaroso, a US Airways flight attendant, remembers a very different time for airline crews: “I can tell you this much–when I first started in the industry in 1986, employees were able to by-pass security all together. Even if I wasn’t in uniform, I just had to flash my airline ID and walked around security” (Nov 2012). Today all airline employees are subjected to the same creening procedures as passengers; however, at most larger airports there are separate checkpoints designated solely for flight crewmembers to help expedite their way through the process so that they may begin required pre-flight checks and duties in preparation for passenger boarding. One of the most visible changes at the airports has been the replacement of poorly-trained, low-paid security checkpoint screeners, with the TSA (Transportation Security Administration), a government operated agency created after 9/11. In 2001, airport security paid less than the starting salaries at airport fast-food restaurants.
According to the TSA, federalizing airport security has lowered worker turnover from 125% per year to 6. 4% (Segan 1). The implementation of the TSA has meant longer waits at security screening due to more thorough measures such as the use of metal detecting wands, pat-downs, and having passengers walk through machines (known as backscatters) that perform full body scans. The screening regimens used today are systematic and more detailed than in the past, aimed at providing safer air travel; however, passengers overwhelmingly feel this is an invasion of their privacy.
Privacy issues, however, have taken a back seat to safety. After an alleged terrorist unsuccessfully tried to detonate his explosive underwear on a Christmas Day flight to Detroit in 2009, the scanning devices are now being used to spot these types of explosives. “This plot is an example of something we’ve known could exist in theory, and in order to be able to detect it, you’ve got to find some way of detecting things in parts of the body that aren’t easy to get at. It’s either pat-downs or imaging”, former Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff told the Washington Post (Chertoff 2).
The images the machines produce are considered to be too revealing by a large portion of air travelers; although, the TSA insists that the pictures are immediately discarded and not stored, once the passenger is cleared to exit the machine. “Backscatter scans intentionally blur facial features, and the security officer viewing images sits in a remote location where he or she cannot identify the passengers. The systems also delete scanned images after the viewings, and have zero storage capability”, said Lara Uselding, a TSA spokesperson (Hsu 1).
There are health safety worries as well, due to the radiation emitted from the x-ray scanners. While refusing to admit concerns over radiation levels being the reason, the Transportation Security Administration has been removing its x-ray body scanners from major airports over the last few weeks and replacing them with machines that radiation experts believe are safer. The replacement machines, known as millimeter-wave scanners, rely on low-energy radio waves similar to those used in cell phones. It has been repeatedly measured to be less than the dose received from cosmic radiation during two minutes of the airplane flight (Grabell 1).
With all of the hassles and inconveniences, the security checkpoint remains the last line of defense in the war against terrorism in the air; if security has not executed its purpose by that stage of the process, devastating repercussions could result. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, protocols onboard the aircraft became dramatically different for passengers and flight crews alike. “It seemed every flight attendant was extremely more vigilant and visible during boarding, so we could observe any strange behavior or notice any suspicious discussions between people, who then sat far apart from each other in the cabin.
It took quite a long time before the normal jump seat activity started again… sitting and reading, joking with each other, heading into the cockpit for a visit”, recalls former US Airways flight attendant, Carrie Davis (Nov 2012). Air travelers became hyper-alert, ready to assist the flight attendants in the event any fellow passengers may have ill intentions and attempt to carry them out. Passengers were not permitted to stand near the vicinity of the cockpit door and were required to remain seated anytime it was open. Those directives continue to the present day.
Flight attendants no longer carry keys used to enter the flight deck, but instead contact the pilots via interphone to request permission to go inside. The replacement and subsequent reinforcement of every cockpit door has virtually eliminated the possibility that another group of hijackers could ever seize a passenger aircraft to use as a weapon of mass destruction. No matter what transpires in the cabin of the aircraft during a hijacking attempt, the pilots’ course of action will be to keep the flight deck door closed and to get the plane on the ground as expeditiously and safely as possible.
Two additional components of the multi-layered plan for protecting commercial flights after 9/11 include the Federal Flight Deck Officer (FFDO) Program and the initiative of Federal Air Marshals being placed on more flights. Under the FFDO Program, eligible flight crewmembers are authorized by the TSA Office of Law Enforcement Service to use firearms to defend against an act of criminal violence or air piracy by anyone attempting to gain control of an aircraft. A flight crewmember may be a pilot, flight engineer or navigator assigned to the flight (TSA).
Federal Air Marshals, previously referred to as Sky Marshals, were onboard all flights to and from Washington, D. C. immediately following the attacks. Passengers were instructed to remain seated for the first 30 minutes upon departing Reagan International Airport; and likewise for the final 30 minutes on flights approaching it. Now, the “stay seated” restrictions have been lifted and marshals are no longer positioned on every flight into our nation’s capital. Air Marshals blend in with the passengers, conceal their weapons and identify themselves only to the flight crew.
An article in the Christian Science Monitor reported: “The Marshals used to help out in medical emergencies and sometimes with unruly passengers–but no more. Unless absolutely necessary, they don’t want to tip anyone off to their presence. The premium now is on anonymity, and their focus is to protect the plane, passengers, and crew from any individual posing a terrorist threat” (Marks 1). Are passengers now more secure in the air than they were in the days before September 11, 2001? The government and the airlines, collectively, have spent billions of dollars to make it so, but the fact remains—complete assurance continues to be elusive.
The expensive and time-consuming screening, now routine for passengers at airport boarding gates, has detected plenty of knives, loaded guns and other contraband, but it has never identified a terrorist who was about to board a plane (Murphy 2). We have better intelligence, better security devices, and we all are more alert to the possibility of threats. Even so, unless we are able to imagine what terrorists might do next, we are vulnerable. The process of navigating airport security has become a hassle–most would agree. We tolerate many inconveniences just to get to the plane.