Updated: Nov 14, 2019
If you fly even infrequently, we don’t have to tell you that airport security has changed dramatically since 9/11. You have to stand in long lines. You deal with invasive screenings. Plus, you have to remember weird rules. And you have to find a way to stand on the good side of the many grumpy TSA agents. In fact, Condé Nast Traveler reported in 2017 that the U.S. had spent almost $100 billion to secure airports and airplanes since 9/11. And you’ll see the result of lots of that spending both at the TSA airport security checkpoint.
1. Congress created the TSA
You might not realize it when your fate seems to rest in the hands of the TSA agentsoperating the security checkpoint. But the agency didn’t always exist. So it wasn’t always in charge of airport security.
Condé Nast Traveler notes that the law that created the Transportation Security Administration passed a couple months after 9/11. The agency’s arrival on the scene has led to some of the biggest and most lasting changes at airport security and beyond.
2. The TSA separates the ‘known’ travelers
As Condé Nast Traveler explains, “A major aim of the post-9/11 overhaul was to harness better intelligence and more sophisticated pre-screening to separate the ‘known’ travelers from those who might warrant more scrutiny.” Officials created a “known traveler” program with TSA PreCheck.
PreCheck gives expedited treatment to travelers who voluntarily submit to a background check. It sounds like a great idea. But as Traveler notes, “Credit for this should really should go to Customs and Border Protection.” That agency “got there first with its Global Entry fast-track screening for arriving passengers, which showed the TSA how this could be done without invading people’s privacy.”
3. The government took responsibility for airport security away from private companies
Airports today have tons of security personnel. But Condé Nast Traveler reports that on 9/11, “there were fewer than 20,000 airport screeners.” And most of them were “poorly-trained, minimum-wage contract workers who were hired by the airlines.”
The publication adds, “One of the very first responses from the government was to kick the airlines off the security beat, and to put the government in charge — that’s what gave us the TSA.” Now, the TSA has about 42,000 screeners, all federal employees. Yet the system isn’t perfect. And screeners do miss weapons at what Traveler characterizes as “a disturbingly high rate.”
4. The agency inspects bags and screens people
TSA agents consider two important things as they try to keep travelers safe. As The Huffington Post explains, “TSA employees inspect bags for banned items and screen passengers for suspicious behaviors.” In other words, they scrutinize two things that never really got a whole lot of attention before 9/11.
TSA agents look out for things like nervous behavior from travelers. But we have to imagine that it’s difficult to tell when somebody’s anxious because they’re plotting something — or when they’re anxious because they have to go through stressful security screenings.
5. You can get in trouble for a wide array of behaviors and traits
The Post reports that airports have screened for potential hijackers since 1969. In 1969, the FAA developed a profiling system to use in conjunction with detectors. But what’s new since 9/11 is the very broad list of behaviors and traits, obtained by The Intercept, that the TSA looks out for in travelers.
TSA agents look for “exaggerated yawning.” They also look out for travelers who are either “gazing down,” or have “widely open staring eyes.” Another red flag? A “face pale from recent shaving of beard.” They also don’t like to see “rubbing or wringing of hands.” And you may look suspicious if you’re “wearing improper attire for location.” Some of those traits, however, sound like they’d be common among tired or disoriented travelers. That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the agency’s methods.
6. Airports have better technology to screen for weapons
Another crucial step in improving airport security post 9/11? Equipping airports with better screening technology. Condé Nast Traveler reports that before 9/11, most checked luggage “went straight onto the plane without being scrutinized for explosives.”
But after 9/11, airports installed detection machines in their lobbies. And together with airlines, the airports spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build underground bag screening systems. Those systems screen all the bags that travelers drop off at check-in.
7. They’ve also gotten new technology to screen people
Condé Nast Traveler reports that airports quickly built efficient systems for screening baggage. But “the machinery to screen people has proved more of a challenge.”
The TSA had to scrap its first generation of controversial body-scanning machines.
Additionally, the agency insists that the current machines are safe, even for frequent travelers. But some people still worry about the health effects of exposure to radiation at airport security.
8. The TSA sets the rules on what you can take through airport security
All travelers know that the TSA has extensive rules on what you can and can’t take through airport security. (Yet that doesn’t stop some people from trying to get through with some pretty bizarre baggage.) But the rules offer a pretty striking example of how much 9/11 changed things.
The Huffington Post reports that before the TSA was established, “you could bring blades up to 4 inches long aboard a plane. The Federal Aviation Administration did not consider them menacing.” Plus, most local laws didn’t prohibit them. Yet you can’t carry them onboard anymore. Baseball bats, box cutters, darts, and scissors were also allowed through airport security. But the TSA prohibits them now.
9. The agency banned — and then limited — the liquids you can carry on board
The Washington Times reports that in 2006, the TSA briefly banned travelers from packing any liquids in their carry on baggage. Fortunately, that rule didn’t last long. But a few months later, the agency came up with its infamous 3-1-1 rule.
The Post explains, “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.” The rule remains in place today. (Even if some travelers have found ways to get around it.)
10. All the rules require travelers to get to the airport a lot earlier
Many travelers remember that in the days before 9/11, you didn’t have to arrive at the airport multiple hours before your flight was scheduled to depart. Those days have long passed.
As The Huffington Post notes, “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.”
11. We’ve all become OK with racial profiling
When it comes to airport security, many Americans famously approve of racial profiling. That may come as a surprise to people concerned about our attitudes toward civil liberties, democracy, and the racism that persists in American society.
But the poll results really shouldn’t surprise anyone. Since shortly after 9/11, Gallup polls have shown that Americans condone racial profiling at the airport. (Even if they object to it, at least in theory, in other situations.)
12. You can land on a terrorist watch list
Everybody knows not to make jokes about bombs while wait to board the plane. But people have also started to wonder what they can Google or post on Facebook without landing on the terrorist watch list.
That list constitutes a new development since 9/11. (Wired notes that it actually began in 2003.) As The Huffington Post explains, the government has “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.”
13. Cockpits have been sealed off
Another major change since 9/11 is visible not at the airport, but on your plane. In the past, people could come and go from the cockpit easily. But that capability doesn’t exist anymore.
Condé Nast Traveler reports that pilots now “remain locked behind impregnable doors for the duration of the flight (with obvious exceptions for restroom breaks, but flight attendants are trained to protect the cockpit during those intervals).”
14. There are more air marshals
Condé Nast Traveler adds that the government has also increased the size of the air marshal workforce. That workforce “had dwindled to a minuscule number of guards — fewer than 100 — by 2001.”
But unlike some of the other changes to airport security, the government has less to show for this one. As Traveler explains, “the program has reportedly been plagued by low morale and high attrition, although the details of just how many are employed in this job are classified (it’s estimated to be more than 5,000).”
15. Pilots can carry guns
According to Condé Nast Traveler, pilots “have picked up some of the slack” in protecting their aircraft through the Federal Flight Deck Officer program. This program permits them to carry guns after they’ve undergone proper training.
According to an airport screening manual leaked by the TSA, these pilots receive training by the U.S. Marshals Service. They can carry TSA-issued firearms onto planes. However, these pilots can pass through the airport without a regular security screening only after they present their credentials and photo ID.
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