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Airline Security

Airline Security


Following the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, airline and airport security reform was a key aspect of international anti-terrorist efforts. Although some nations, such as Great Britain and Israel, had created strong passenger and luggage screening protocols before 2001, there were few international standards for airport security. Concern about the possible future use of airplanes in terrorist attacks and hijacking events provoked widespread changes in United States airport security and passenger screening operations.

United States Aviation and Transportation Security Act

On November 18 and 19, 2001, the United States Congress passed the Airport Security Federalization Act and the Aviation and Transportation Security Act. The laws sought to standardize pre-flight passenger and cargo screening by federalizing security service and screening personnel in the nation's airports. The Aviation and Transportation Security Act created the Federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to supervise security operations for sea and air transportation. The TSA hires and trains Federal airport screeners, who under the new law must all be American citizens. Though the acts govern only United States airports, many of the new initiatives and procedures outlined in the legislation have been routine in many foreign airports for several years.

The Aviation and Transportation Security Act also prescribed several fundamental changes in screening and flight protocol beyond the federalization of personnel. As of December 31, 2002, bomb detection devices, which can detect explosive residue, must screen checked baggage. CT Scanning devices and increased hand searching of luggage were among other encouraged reforms.

Passenger screening also increased in scope and effectiveness. Access to airport departure and arrival gates and concourses is now restricted to ticketed passengers.

In addition to the metal detectors already in place in many airports, more careful checks of electronic devices, such as laptop computers and cellular phones, and carry-on luggage, became standard. The Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, a data base system used in conjunction with the Advance Passenger Information System (APIS), provides searchable biographical and security information on air travelers.

New security measures included modifications to aircraft. Fortified cockpit doors, required to remain closed during flight, prevent easy access from the cabin to the cockpit. Pilots and flight crew can now monitor the aircraft cabin with video monitors and recording devices. The Department of Transportation further requires all planes and passenger trains to be equipped with emergency notification systems that are capable of communicating with airport, national, and local "911" emergency services.

Airports themselves are now required to be secured areas. Fences prevent unauthorized entry onto runways and staging areas. Automobiles cannot be left unattended within 300 yards of the airport terminal. Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, the number of security personnel and law enforcement officers on duty in the nation's airports has increased. Some special security details employ K-9 units with chemical and bomb sniffing dogs.

The new screening process. Airport security reform mandated several procedural changes that are evident to travelers. Items that were once commonly allowed in carry-on luggage, such as razors and scissors, are now banned in luggage that will be stored in the cabin of a plane. Airports and airlines in the United States now employ a more stringent pre-flight screening process for passengers, as well as luggage.

The first step in the new screening process is to establish, and positively confirm, the identity of the traveler. Travelers must furnish identification that matches itineraries or tickets. If a passenger is traveling to a foreign destination, airlines and security personnel conduct an unseen screening of passengers via the Advance Passenger Information System (APIS), a database that stores biographical information on airline travelers.

After checking-in with the airline, the passenger, and any carry-on luggage, is required to go through a detailed, physical screening. Identification is checked and confirmed for a second time. Travelers must pass successfully through pulse induction standing or wand metal detectors, while x-ray machines screen baggage. Electronic devices, such as cellular phones, laptop computers, and personal digital assistants (PDAs), are all required to be turned on and shown to security personnel for inspection, or taken out of luggage and screened separately by x-ray. Advanced xray machines that transmit images in three colors permit federal screeners to identify organic, inorganic, and metal, items inside of a traveler's baggage. If security personnel are unable to clearly define the contents of a piece of luggage, or suspect prohibited items, then they open the luggage and conduct a hand search. Only passengers and luggage that successfully pass inspection are permitted to proceed to airline departure gates.

Once at the departure gate, airline personnel are required to conduct random security searches as passengers board the plane. These searches are usually brief, but thorough, and involve a hand search of the contents of carry-on luggage. Some passengers are also asked to answer questions regarding their travel plans. These preflight searches have received criticism from some who claim that racial and ethnic profiling is the predominant factor in choosing which passengers to search. Others have claimed that the pre-flight screening violates privacy and causes fear with other passengers because the searches are performed in plain sight of fellow travelers. Proponents of the random pre-flight searches assert that they are indeed, random, unless a traveler is flagged by APIS.

As a passenger boards the plane, machines scan boarding cards in order to compile a final passenger manifest. Airline cabin or ground crew then transmits the passenger list to federal aviation and individual airline officials. During the boarding process, passenger identification is sometimes checked for a third and final time.

Baggage that the passenger surrenders to the airline for storage in the cargo hold during flight, or checked baggage, undergoes a different screening process, separate of the passenger. First, baggage is matched to its owning traveler. If the passenger does not board the flight, then the baggage is not loaded onto the plane. This is more easily accomplished with the use of printed, individual, barcode tags affixed to luggage.

Checked baggage screening is geared around the detection of explosive or incendiary devices. X ray machines or computer tomography (CT) scanners screen the content of baggage. CT scanners permit a bag to be xrayed individually, yet efficiently, and from all sides. The screener also calculates the density and mass of objects within the luggage, checking the data with a database of known mass/densities of dangerous or explosive substances. CT scanners are slower than standard palate xray systems that survey several bags at a time, however their screening is more thorough.

The future of airline security. Despite general acceptance of most airline and airport security reforms, some programs remain controversial. Some have criticized the incorporation of law enforcement profiling techniques into routine passenger screening practices, claiming that persons of Middle Eastern ethnicity are more often under suspicion, searched, and detained by security personnel.

The controversy surrounding profiling escalated when officials in the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense proposed the introduction of the Total Information Awareness (TIA) system, a searchable database that stores personal information including financial and medical records. Though the TIA was intended to be used by federal law enforcement officials to collate data and find terrorist networks, Congress severely circumscribed the controversial program in 2003, prohibiting its use for domestic security operations. TIA was later renamed the Terrorist Information Awareness system

With the creation of the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS), many agencies responsible for airline safety and airport security, including the TSA, were assumed into the new government department. The DHS has combined national anti-terrorist efforts with earlier regulations specifically regarding airports and airlines. The incorporation of the Early Alert System, a color-coded warning system meant to indicate the variable likelihood of terrorist attacks, marked the most notable change in security procedures. As threat levels are elevated, security procedures are heightened. At the Orange and Red levels, airports employ a wider secured perimeter, different flight paths around urban areas, and increased security personnel.

Although TSA is now a part of the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) continue to aid the progress of reforming United States airline security policy through safety recommendations and review of airline practices.



Transportation Safety Administration. <> (12 March 2003).

United States Department of the Treasury. U.S. Customs Service. <>(05 January 2003).


Air Marshals, United States
APIS (Advance Passenger Information System)
Canada, Counter-terrorism Policy
France, Counter-terrorism Policy
Germany, Counter-terrorism Policy
Israel, Counter-terrorism Policy
September 11 Terrorist Attacks on the United States
United Kingdom, Counter-terrorism Policy
United States, Counter-terrorism Policy

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Civil Aviation Security, United States

Civil Aviation Security, United States


Civil aviation security in the United States is directed by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which was created after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, under the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA). Prior to November 19, 2001, when President George W. Bush signed ATSA into law, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) handled civil aviation security. The passage of the new law, and the creation of the new administration, required changes to the federal statutes covering aviation security, which are contained in Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Chapter XII parts 1500 through 1699.

ATSA mandated increases in the numbers of federal air marshals, and placed airport security screeners under federal control. It required that all screeners be U.S. citizens (a provision later challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union), and that all bags be screened or matched to passengers. It also included provisions for awards of $1.5 billion to airports and private contractors to meet the direct costs of meeting new security requirements.

The law created TSA, to be headed by a Transportation Department undersecretary for security appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Overseeing TSA would be a new Security Oversight Board consisting of cabinet secretaries, or their designees, from the departments of Transportation, Defense, Treasury, Justice, and Homeland Security (the latter, then the Office of Homeland Security, became a cabinet-level department on March 1, 2003), as well as one representative each from the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council.

The undersecretary would appoint a federal security manager at each airport nationwide, and was authorized to provide air marshals as he or she saw fit. Each flight deemed a high security risk would have air marshals, who could be appointed at the undersecretary's discretion. In consultation with airport and law enforcement officials, the undersecretary would order the safeguarding or airport areas as needed.

In the field of airport security screeners, these were placed under federal control as uniformed TSA employees. Airport security screeners had to be proficient in English, pass background checks, undergo a minimum of 40 hours' classroom instruction or the equivalent, complete 60 hours on-the-job training, and be tested each year.

In addition, the undersecretary was authorized to establish a test program whereby five airports (one from each of five levels of security risk) would be permitted to contract directly with private companies. These companies would have to have standards at least as high as those of the federalized screening force, which would operate at all other hub airportsof which there were 424 total in the United States at the timefor two years. At the end of two years, airports would be allowed to opt out of the federalized screening program if they so choose.

Within 60 days, all checked baggage would have to be screened, either by explosives detection machinery, or manually. The law also authorized the Secretary of Transportation to require airports to use all necessary equipment for the detection of chemical or biological weapons.



Croft, John. "Air Security Bill Clears Lawmakers' Logjam." Aviation Week & Space Technology 155, no. 21 (November 19, 2001): 46.

"Responses to ASR's Survey on Aviation Security Post-Sept. 11." Airport Security Report 9, no. 19 (September 11, 2002): 1.

"S. 1447, Aviation and Transportation Security Act." Airports 18, no. 48 (November 27, 2001): 5.


Transportation Security Administration. <> (March 5, 2003).


Air marshals, United States
Aviation Security Screeners, United States
FAA (United States Federal Aviation Administration)
September 11 Terrorist Attacks on the United States
Transportation Department, United States

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"Civil Aviation Security, United States." Encyclopedia of Espionage, Intelligence, and Security. . 23 Nov. 2017 <>.

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