It’s hard to believe there was a time when air travel could inspire the lyrics to hits like Frank Sinatra’s “Come Fly With Me.”
Fifteen years ago, when terrorists hijacked four U.S. airliners and flew them into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, killing nearly 3,000 people, national security efforts changed forever. For many Americans, nowhere are those policies more apparent than at the airport.
Here’s a reminder of what it used to be like to go through the airport.
Private companies, not the government, oversaw airport screening
The Transportation Security Administration, which currently screens travelers, was created two months after the attacks as part of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act. The law gave the federal government direct responsibility for all airport screenings, a job that airports had previously outsourced to private security companies.
The hiring, training and deployment of nearly 60,000 employees for the agency marked the “largest mobilization of the federal government since WWII,” writes TSA historian Michael P. C. Smith.
The agency oversees security on all of the nation’s transportation systems. At airports, TSA employees inspect bags for banned items and screen passengers for suspicious behaviors.
A year after Sept. 11, the TSA began using explosive detection systems nationwide to screen all bags for explosives. In the years following, the agency has installed more advanced technologies, such as the full-body scanner.
You could bring all sorts of things through security
Before the attacks, you could bring blades up to 4 inches long aboard a plane. The Federal Aviation Administration did not consider them menacing, most local laws didn’t prohibit carrying them and they would have been hard to detect without stronger metal detectors, the government explained in its 9/11 commission report.
Baseball bats, box cutters, darts, knitting needles and scissors were also allowed on board, according to an FAA manual obtained by CBS News.
All these items were banned from flights in the aftermath of the attacks ― some immediately, some later, as the government detected new threats. In August 2006, the TSA banned all liquids from carry-on luggage after terrorists attempted to detonate liquid explosives carried onboard at least 10 flights traveling from the UK to the U.S. and Canada. A month later, TSA amended the rule and allowed passengers to carry on liquids, gels and aerosols in containers of 3.4 ounces or less in a single, clear, resealable 1-quart plastic bag.
Large printer ink cartridges were similarly banned in 2010.
Sept. 11 also marked the end of easily bringing loved ones through security with you to say goodbye at the gate, or to greet you when you arrive ― though airlines will sometimes issue a “gate pass” to flyers’ companions if they have a valid reason, such as accompanying a minor.
Accounting for the added time to screen for banned items and possible enhanced security now requires travelers to get to the airport hours earlier than they did before Sept. 11.
Your airport behavior and appearance were rarely cause for alarm
Airports have been screening for potential hijackers since 1969, when the FAA developed a profiling system to use in conjunction with metal detectors. While the FAA says the profile was “constructed from behavioral characteristics shared by past perpetrators,” the list the TSA uses is very broad.
Last year, The Intercept obtained and published a confidential list of behaviors and traits TSA agents look out for. They range from “exaggerated yawning,” “gazing down” and “widely open staring eyes” to “face pale from recent shaving of beard,” “rubbing or wringing of hands” and “wearing improper attire for location.”
The list was published a week after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the TSA to obtain records about its behavior detection programs, claiming they allowed for racial profiling and specifically targeted African American women, who said they were being subjected to excessive and embarrassing pat-downs of their hair. The following month, the TSA came to “an informal agreement with the ACLU to enhance officer training” on the pat-downs.
You didn’t have to worry about being on a terrorist watch list
The Intercept published another confidential TSA document in 2014 that outlined the government’s “secret rules for putting individuals on its main terrorist database, as well as the no fly list and the selectee list, which triggers enhanced screening at airports and border crossings.”
The guidelines are full of murky language. Someone can suggest you be added to the list because you’re “representative” of a terrorist group, even if you have “neither membership in nor association with the organization.” And several highly publicized incidents show that the TSA has added people to watch lists mistakenly, either through mishandling paperwork or mixing up people with similar names.
Because of that, the vast majority of people who are flagged as “known or suspected terrorists” are included on the list. In 2013, The Intercept reported, the government disclosed that of the 468,749 nominations for the list that year, only about 1 percent were rejected.