Evolution of Airport Security, or Why We Have to Take Off Our Shoes

Courtesy of PixaBay

A nuisance to keeps us safe

By Teodor Teofilov

Your long-planned holiday trip to the tropics is coming. After months of hard work and long hours, you are ready to enjoy the much needed and deserved vacation. You pack your bags, make your way to the airport, ready to travel to paradise and relax. The golden beaches, the blue water and the warm sun high in the clear sky await you. You can’t wait to take your towel and place it on the heated, golden specks of sand, lie atop of it with your favorite cold cocktail in hand and enjoy the slight breeze.

Sounds Wonderful. Deserved and needed.

But wait! Before you reach the tropics you need to get through the most dreaded part of the trip – airport security.

If you fly often you know what is coming. As you slowly weave your way through the mile-long snake line of human bodies toward the security checkpoint, you hear the all so familiar beeps of people setting off the alarm.


Everyone avoids eye contact with the hardened criminal as he dares forget a metal object somewhere on his persona. Out of the corner of your eye, you barely make out the culprit rummaging through his pockets trying to find the cause. The daring perpetrator is firmly but politely asked to step aside and join another line.

The criminal is now at a secondary screening line and must take off his shoes and stand on a mat, which, ironically, has been imprinted with shoe-shaped footprints that were once white. At the same time, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) staff uses an electronic wand on the suspect.

You stand there searching for anything on your person that might cause you to experience the same public humiliation as the above-mentioned criminal. Your turn comes and you empty your pockets, take out your laptop, remove your belt and place them in the conveniently provided plastic bin. Then you take off your shoes, which you place neatly next to your belongings on the conveyor.

Voalá! It worked. It goes off without a hitch. You grab your stuff and return all of your possessions to their assigned positions. Belt around waist, laptop in bag, wallet and phone in pockets and hopefully shoes on feet. The beach is now just around the corner. The dreaded situation has been averted, at least for the time. Unless your flight is delayed for an indefinite amount of time.

It wasn’t too long ago when all you needed to do when you arrived at the airport was to hand over your ticket, board the plane and enjoy the flight to your destination (unless you have aviophobia).

Those were simpler times but a lot has changed since the 1970s and the rules for the dreaded security line are in place to keep us safe.

How did we reach the shoe removal stage?

Prior to the 1970s security controls at US airports were lax, to put it mildly. Although there were some incidents with explosives and insurance fraud, the first half of the last century was relatively tame, until May 1, 1961, that is. On that day a passenger on an airliner bound for Key West, FL, forced the pilot to take the plane to a country now synonymous with hijacking – Cuba. Four more similar incidents occurred before August came around. Maybe people just wanted to join the newly communist regime?

In 1968, airlines were placing armed guards on flights, which proved less useful than originally thought and that same year there were 12 airliners and six private jets that were forced to detour to Cuba.

The first to implement the use of metal detectors and passenger profiling in the name of safety was the New Orleans International Airport on July 17, 1970.

Two years after that, hijackers threatened to fly Southern Airways Flight 49 into a nuclear reactor and in a response to that the Federal Aviation Administration required airports to screen all passengers and their carry-on bags by Jan 5, 1973. The checkpoints at the airport were to be overseen by the airlines and security personnel was contracted from private companies.

In August 1974 Congress passed the Air Transportation Security Act, which introduced and required metal detectors and X-ray screenings of carry-on bags at all US airports. Consumer advocates sued over the metal detectors, saying that they were a violation of the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, and the courts agreed. However, they deemed the screenings legal, so long as they were universal and used only for the search of weapons and explosives.

X-raying only carry-ons was the norm until Dec 21, 1988, when a bomb exploded on a Pan Am Flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all of the 259 passengers on board and 11 more on the ground. As a result, US carriers were required to X-ray all checked luggage.

The next bundle of security measures at airports came after the largest terrorist attack on US soil on Sept. 11, 2001, which took the lives of nearly 3,000 people. After 19 militants associated with the terrorist organization al-Qaeda hijacked four planes and carried out suicide attacks, all objects with a blade or sharp point were banned from carry-on bags. Passengers were no longer allowed to congregate by the front lavatory of any commercial airliner.

In November of the same year, the Aviation and Transportation Security Act was passed, through which the federal government assumed responsibility for all airline security screenings and the TSA was created.

The month after the TSA was created, it led to another important measure being implemented. On December 22 of the same year, Richard Reid boarded American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami and tried to ignite explosives that he had hidden in his shoes. The attempt was unsuccessful and passengers subdued him. Reid was sentenced to life in prison without parole after he pleaded guilty to eight federal criminal counts of terrorism. After that, the TSA began random searches of peoples’ shoes.

In 2004, the TSA required passengers to remove their jackets before going through security and people without boarding passes were no longer allowed to pass through security checkpoints. Over the next year, lighters were banned from commercial airplanes.

The TSA mandated that all shoes need to be removed and screened when people pass security in the summer of 2006. The same year saw British officials foil a terror plot that involved the use of liquid explosives, which led to all liquids, aerosols and gels being prohibited from carry-on bags. On Sept 25, 2006, the TSA changed the ban to allow three-ounce containers packed into quarter Ziploc bags – the infamous 3-1-1 rule.

Even though making your way through the sea of humans that constitute the security lines at airports can seem tedious and annoying, the rules that are currently in place are there for a reason, multiple reasons. All in the name of public safety.

The much deserved holiday comes hand in hand with rules and guidelines. That is until you get to the beach and forget about the small annoyance that is airport security lines.

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