Terrorists had to pass through airport security in Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Virginia before hijacking the four planes used in the 9/11 attacks.
Even though several of them were tagged for screening by the CAPPS security system or were hand-wanded after triggering metal detectors at Dulles airport, they were able to board the Boeing plane.
The writers of The 9/11 Commission Report, which the government published in 2004, summarised in the volume’s opening chapter, “By 8 a.m. on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001,
they had defeated all the security layers that America’s civil aviation system had in place to prevent a hijacking.”
Although the assaults are in the past, Bruce Hoffman, a senior fellow for counterterrorism and homeland security at the Council on Foreign Relations, believes that the threat of terrorism to commercial aviation is rising.
He says, “It’s back, and I’m afraid.” Between 2004 and 2015, he claims, there was a “remarkably successful run” of heightened security measures and a matching lack of successful assaults,
but that this changed six years ago with the bombing of a Russian charter flight out of the Sinai Peninsula, which killed 224 people.
“Until that assault, we thought we had beefed up aviation security to the point where it was a deterrent,” he says.
He also mentions a bomb that exploded on a flight out of Mogadishu, Somalia, in February 2016, even though the plane did not crash.
“It’s concerning that, after a remarkable lengthy hiatus, terrorists have once again, I believe unmistakably, turned their attention to commercial aviation.”
In the two decades following September 11, TSA-staffed security checkpoints have grown to look quite different,
with passengers growing accustomed to, if not less upset by, rituals such as removing shoes and leaving liquids behind.
Passengers, on the other hand, are unaware of some of the more noteworthy modifications to flight security that resulted from the tragedy of 9/11.
They involve both a philosophical shift in how a flight crew would handle a hijacking and a physical embodiment of that shift in the shape of reinforced cockpit doors.
Other modifications are less obvious and more contentious. Here’s how airline security has changed in the 20 years since that day.
A CHANGE IN ATTITUDE AMONG THE FLIGHT CREW
Experts say today’s pilots would react very differently to a hijacking. Before 9/11,
the standard was to collaborate to some extent—for example, taking the hijackers where they wanted to go while ensuring aircraft and passenger safety,
but following the attacks, the new emphasis was to keep would-be terrorists off the flight deck at all costs.
According to Brian Michael Jenkins, a senior counselor to the president of the RAND Corporation and a terrorism and transportation security expert who has worked in the field since the early 1970s, this is a significant shift.
“Safety was the primary concern” before 9/11, he says. “The issue was compliance—don’t do anything to aggravate the situation or imperil the passengers—fly wherever they want, get the plane on the ground, and we’ll figure it out later.”
However, he points out that 9/11 taught pilots that complying with orders might make a situation immensely more dangerous.
The physical manifestation of this new mindset is reinforced cockpit doors.
In January 2002, the FAA issued a public request for airlines to install them.
The barriers are meant to protect the flight deck from “intrusion and small arms fire or fragmentation devices, such as grenades,” according to an FAA press statement on the rule.
The FAA also instructed airlines to improve the locks on such doors, “so that it can only be unlocked from inside the cockpit,” according to the same instruction.
Before 9/11, flight deck doors had locks, but cabin crew members usually had keys. The locking system is now designed such that pilots have complete control over who enters.
“The manufacturers—Boeing, Airbus, Embraer, Bombardier—were quick to come up with designs that would fulfill the government standards,” says John Cox, a retired commercial pilot who worked in the aviation industry from 1980 to 2005.
“It was a cross-industry collaboration.” At the time, the FAA estimated that each door would cost roughly $15,000, with additional costs in the form of increased fuel costs due to the added weight.
In the end, the adjustment in mentality following 9/11 was painful but necessary.
According to Cox, there existed a way to collaborate and protect passengers before the 9/11 hijackings.
“After 9/11, the purpose was to defend society as a whole, even if it meant putting passengers in danger—it was a terrible situation to be in, but you couldn’t think of handing over control of the jet to anyone other than the flight crew.”
CHANGES IN PASSENGER ATTITUDES AND INTELLIGENCE
The fortified doors aren’t the only changes to the flying experience that have been made.
Passengers, like members of the flight crew, have adopted a distinct mindset, according to Jenkins of the RAND Corporation.
“We know the passengers on the last flight on 9/11 realized what was going on and fought back,” Jenkins says.
“It reflects a prevalent mindset today.” He believes an instigator would face a very real risk of physical violence from “terrified passengers” in a modern hijacking.
Other alterations have also occurred, according to Jenkins. “Intelligence is one of the things that has increased tremendously since 9/11—that people don’t notice at all,” he says.
“Since September 11, there has been extraordinary coordination among the world’s intelligence services and law enforcement organizations.”
In the United States, centralized hubs exist in the form of the National Counterterrorism Center and the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE, which it manages.
The FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center and its master watchlist, the Terrorist Screening Database, receive data from TIDE.
However, while the system is more united and efficient than it was pre-9/11,
it is punishing to individuals caught up in it, according to Hugh Handeyside, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s national security project.
“The federal government’s system is vast and terribly unfair,” he writes in an email.
It lacks even the most fundamental due process safeguards, and it disproportionately targets Muslims, immigrants, and people of color.”
SHOULD THE TSA CARE ABOUT HOW YOU BREATHE?
The people and machines at TSA-run security checkpoints are, of course, the most visible layer of aviation security for travelers.
The Government Accountability Office, or GAO, investigates that agency and has mixed feelings about its performance.
According to the GAO, passenger vetting is one of the responsibilities that it does well.
According to Tina Won Sherman, a director with the GAO’s homeland security and justice division,
the TSA has done an excellent job running a program called Secure Flight,
which entails receiving passenger information from airlines and checking it against a watchlist.
Before this TSA-managed initiative, airlines got information from the government and compared it to their manifest lists.
Then there are the flaws, which include the TSA’s real equipment for screening passengers, baggage, and cargo.
The GAO is concerned about the technology’s upkeep: if it functioned well when it was first installed years ago, has it been tested to see if it’s still sensitive to the appropriate levels? Sherman claims that,
in the case of explosives detection equipment, the TSA “actually hasn’t gone back and taken a look” to verify if the devices still work properly.
She cites the technology’s “degraded performance.” Two GAO cargo reports, one from 2019 and the other from this year go into greater detail about the difficulties.
Several other issues have been well-documented.
Then there’s behavior analysis, which is the strange and problematic practice of examining someone’s actions to determine whether or not they are a threat.
When the GAO examined the data supporting the TSA’s rationale for focusing on certain behavioral indications,
it discovered that 98 percent of the sources validating those behaviors were unreliable—the source may have been as flimsy as a news or opinion article.
In sum, the “GAO found that 3 of the 178 total sources cited may be utilized as legitimate evidence to support 8 of the 36 behavioral indications in TSA’s amended list,” according to a 2017 study.
The two examples provided by the GAO as to what any of those behavioral indications might be are bizarre.
The TSA has taken into account “the manner individual swallows or the degree to which an individual’s eyes are open,” according to the article. (The GAO has not stated whether or not these two claims are backed up by evidence or have been refuted.)
According to Sherman, the TSA used to have officers whose sole responsibility was to watch passenger conduct, but those posts have since been eliminated.
She claims that they have now just trained enlisted Transportation Security Officers in behavior detection.
“We continue to have concerns about the TSA’s behavior detection efforts, both in terms of how they’re monitoring it in real-time and the amount to which it’s contributing to passenger discrimination, if at all,” Sherman adds.
After instance, relying on nonscientific criteria to flag someone traveling through security might lead to an officer making conclusions based on their own bias,
such as dismissing sweaty hands on a white person but using them as a reason to halt a person of color.
It could also lead to undue harassment of those who are nervous and upset at the TSA checkpoint,
not because they have malicious ideas, but because they are used to being interrogated and subjected to extra scrutiny because of their ethnicity or religious dress.
The ACLU’s Handeyside is a harsh opponent behavior analysis program.
“The TSA’s use of behaviour detection algorithms today is no more valid than it was when experts, members of Congress, and government auditors roundly attacked their usage five or ten years ago,” he says.
The methods are arbitrary and unscientific, and they put people at danger of being profiled based on their race or religion.”
“For security reasons, TSA is unable to detail the particular actions that officers trained in Behavior Detection look for; behaviors,
it is imported behavior member that no single behaviour will result in a behaviour detection referral or call to law enforcement,” a TSA spokeswoman stated.
“Behavior detection employs objective criteria to identify persons who may represent a threat to transportation security,” they continued.
In behavior detection operations, race, ethnicity, and religion are not taken into account.”
THE ROLE OF AVIATION SECURITY HAS CHANGED.
According to Jenkins of the RAND Corporation, “a broader vision encompasses the way the country now understands the function of aviation security.”
He claims that before 9/11, it was regarded far less seriously than it should have been,
and that it even encountered opposition from airlines; it was viewed as a corporate concern.
That, of course, changed. “It was taken over by the federal government, which mandated a lot of additional measures,” he explains.
“But I believe that, beyond the regulatory reforms that occurred in the aftermath of 9/11, there was a shift in mindset that aviation security is a component of national security.”