Air Security and Terrorist Threats

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Air Security and Terrorist Threats

The Conflict

Major security lapses at American airports contributed to the terrorist attacks of September 11. To remedy some of the problems, Congress passed the Airport and Transportation Security Act in November 2001. Given the expense entailed in improving security measures, there are debates over what further actions should be taken. There are also concerns about balancing security priorities with the inconvenience to travelers and the maintenance of their privacy.


  • The use of the Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-screening System (CAPPS) has raised concerns that the civil rights of passengers may be transgressed by the system, which uses dozens of factors to single out passengers for additional security screening.
  • As part of its reforms, Congress has mandated that all security screeners hold U.S. citizenship and speak English. Employees who do not meet these requirements have argued that the new law is discriminatory.


  • The cost of improving airline security is immense, with over $2 billion alone necessary to buy explosive-detection devices for U.S. airports.
  • The airline industry has long argued against new security measures—such as matching each bag to each passenger on a flight before it takes off—that will add to its operating costs and fears that the inconvenience of new security measures will lead some consumers to choose other means of transportation.


  • There has been an ongoing debate over the effectiveness of contracting security responsibilities out to the private sector. In light of ongoing security problems, the U.S. federal government assumed the greater share of responsibility after November 2001.
  • Experts disagree whether improved technology or improved human resources should be emphasized in the new security regime.

In the weeks after the terrorist hijackings of September 11, 2001, airline traffic plummeted as potential passengers took alternate means of travel or canceled their travel plans altogether. With assurances from President George W. Bush (2001-) and Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge that air travel was safe, the airline industry staged a public relations campaign to revive its fortunes. Reassuring the public that the skies were once again safe, industry and government officials pointed to upgraded security measures, more active federal supervision, and new legislation that would help to prevent further terrorist events. By December traffic at international airports resumed its hectic pace around the busy holiday travel season; although the number of passengers was still down, it appeared that the public was once again flying and that fear had been replaced by caution. All of this progress would be called into question, however, with the bizarre and potentially devastatinghijacking/bombing attempt by Richard C. Reid on December 22, 2001.

Born in Bromley, England, a middle-class suburb southeast of London, the twenty-eight-year old Reid had a troubled youth that included several convictions for muggings. Turning to Islam during one prison stint, Reid eventually fell in with an extremist splinter group at the Brixton Mosque near London and began training as a terrorist. Presenting a valid British passport that had been issued in Belgium just three weeks previously, Reid initially attempted to board an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami on December 21. He had missed that flight because security officers at Charles de Gaulle Airport were suspicious about his lack of luggage and other identification. Yet Reid returned the next day and made it on to American Airlines Flight 63. Once the plane was over the ocean, Reid lit a match and attempted to ignite a detonating device that would trigger a plastic explosives pack hidden in his shoe. The smell of burning sulfur alarmed a flight attendant, who confronted Reid. After Reid lashed back and bit the flight attendant, other passengers jumped into the fray. Some held him down while others gathered belts to tie around him. Two doctors on the flight then gave Reid shots of sedatives from the plane's emergency medical supply.

The quick response by Flight 63's crew and passengers prevented Reid from carrying out his suicide bombing, yet it revived a host of troubling questions about airline security in the wake of September 11. Why had a passenger with only one form of identification and no luggage been allowed to board the flight? Why hadn't airport screeners searched Reid more carefully, particularly in light of a Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) memo distributed earlier that month from U.S. authorities warning international airports that terrorists might plant bombs in their shoes? Finally, given his past activities, why hadn't officials been alert to Reid's terrorist ties? Despite reassurances by officials that airline security had been vastly improved, Reid's shoe-bombing attempt seemed to indicate that terrorists could still strike almost at will.

Historical Background

A Modern Crime

The first recorded hijacking of a plane happened in Arequipa, Peru, on February 21, 1931, when rebel forces fighting in a civil war took over an American plane staffed by two pilots. The rebels ordered the pilots to fly them around Peru so that they could drop propaganda leaflets in support of their cause. The pilots refused and a ten-day standoff ensued. Eventually the abductors allowed the plane and its crew to go, but only after they agreed to fly one of the rebels to the capital, Lima. The first passenger plane to be hijacked was a Cathay Pacific plane en route from Macao to Hong Kong in July 1948. Four Chinese hijackers killed the pilot and copilot during the flight, and the plane crashed into the South China Sea along with its nineteen passengers. There were no survivors.

Plane hijackings were rare occurrences until the 1960s. The United States witnessed its first hijacking in May 1961 when a small commercial airplane flying from Miami to Key West, Florida, was diverted by a man who demanded to be taken to Cuba. That same year, three other American planes were also hijacked to Cuba; fortunately, the rash of hijackings did not include any deaths. The most infamous hijacking event on U.S. soil during this period was staged on November 24, 1971, when a man abducted a Northwest Orient flight from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle, Washington. Traveling under the name D.B. Cooper, the hijacker threatened to blow up the plane unless he received

US$200,000 and four parachutes. After releasing the passengers and crew in Seattle, the pilots flew Cooper and his ransom money over southwestern Washington, where Cooper jumped out of the plane. Neither Cooper nor the money was ever seen again. In the year after Cooper's leap, nineteen other people attempted to carry out extortion-style hijackings in the United States.

In contrast to D.B. Cooper's hijacking, which was monetarily motivated, most plane hijackings were carried out in order to demand political asylum or to meet political goals. In the longest hostage siege at a British airport, nine members of the Young Intellectuals of Afghanistan held more than one hundred passengers and crew members of a flight that originated in Kabul, Afghanistan, at Stansted Airport, northeast of London, in February 2000. During the seventy-hour standoff, one member of the flight crew was injured when he was thrown down some steps, and the hijackers threatened to blow up the plane before they surrendered.

Despite their insistence that they conducted the hijacking out of fear of imminent death under their country's Taliban regime, the members of the group were sentenced in January 2002 to terms ranging from twenty-seven months to five years in prison.

In contrast to the aims of extortionists and asylum seekers, other terrorists began to use hijackings as a method to achieve specific political goals in the late 1960s. Of these groups, those acting in support of Palestinian independence became the most infamous in their use of innocent passengers as political bargaining chips. In July 1968 three members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine took control of an Israeli El Al plane on its way from Rome, Italy, to Tel Aviv, Israel. For forty days the hijackers held the passengers and crew hostage until their demands for the release of Palestinian terrorists were met. In another incident that captured the world's attention, a group of Palestinian and German terrorists abducted an Air France plane in June 1976 and forced it to fly to Entebbe, Uganda. While officials negotiated over the terrorists' demands for the release of 53 Palestinian terrorists held in Israeli, European, and Kenyan jails, the standoff dragged on for eight days. On July 4 an Israeli commando squad stormed the plane and ended the siege, but four hostages were killed in the crossfire.

Terrorists have also resorted to bombing planes as a political tactic. In one of the deadliest incidents, a group of Libyan terrorists planted a bomb inside a radio carried in the cargo hold of Pan Am Flight 103. En route from London to New York City on December 21, 1988, the plane exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland. A total of 259 people on the plane and eleven on the ground were killed. Although Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi refused to turn over the Libyan agents suspected of being responsible for the bombing, international sanctions against his country finally weakened his resolve. When the two suspects were tried in a special international court in The Hague in 2000, one was acquitted and another, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, was convicted of placing the bomb in the luggage.

Early Aviation Security Efforts

Each hijacking and bombing resulted in significant changes in air security efforts. After its 1968 hijacking—the only one in its history—El Al instituted a baggage check to match every piece of luggage on board with a passenger on the plane. D.B. Cooper's action resulted in a "Cooper Vane" put on aircraft to prevent exit stairs from being lowered during flight. A 1972 hijacking in Alabama—in which three escaped convicts threatened to crash the plane into a nuclear facility at Oak Ridge, Tennessee—led to a requirement for all baggage to be x-rayed and all passengers to be screened through metal detectors at U.S. airports. After the Pan Am 103 bombing, more advanced screening devices came into use to detect plastic and other nonmetallic explosive devices.

Despite these technical and administrative improvements against terrorism in the air, U.S. airports largely ignored security concerns in their designs. To take advantage of the soaring number of passengers since the 1970s, airport builders emphasized convenience and aesthetic appeal over more security-conscious layouts. Most airports incorporated curbside passenger and luggage drop-off areas, parking spaces near the terminal, and dining and shopping areas for passengers and the public. Before September 11 security ranked behind convenience, environmental restrictions, and the inclusion of commercial outlets in design priorities of American airports.

The Israeli Approach

With the rise of Palestinian terrorism and the hijacking of an El Al plane in July 1968, Israel's state-owned airline became the most security conscious in the world. Counterterrorist elements were built into every phase of airline travel, from the layout of airports to the screening of passengers to the design of the airplanes themselves. As everywhere in Israel, the ability of terrorists to plant bombs in cars or trucks meant that parking areas were severely restricted around airports, and vehicles were typically searched before being parked. Passengers needed to arrive two and sometimes three hours before their flights to make it through the screening process. Every passenger was personally evaluated to see whether he or she matched a profile of a potential terrorist. The evaluation included a review of the passenger's travel documents, reasons for traveling, country of origin, method of payment for the ticket, and numerous other factors. Those who raised suspicions were then drawn aside and each piece of their luggage would be searched.

Crucially, the screening process was conducted by a staff that had received extensive training in counterterrorist tactics. In contrast to the staff at American airports, Israel's security personnel were relatively well paid and the government jobs themselves were considered prestigious. The low turnover rate also ensured that an experienced security force staffed every checkpoint. This experience was especially important in screening for nonmetallic explosive devices, which had to be discerned by their shape on a scanner taking a three-dimensional picture of the interior of the baggage. Once the passengers and their luggage had cleared the screening process, every checked item also had to be matched with a passenger on the plane before it was cleared for flight. To foil terrorist attacks during flight, El Al planes featured an extra, outside cabin door that had to be locked before the cockpit door could be opened.

With only one hijacking or bombing in its history, El Al was held up as a model of airline security. Few of its security innovations, however, were adopted in the United States. Critics of Israel's system pointed out that the country was able to centralize security efforts because it had only one major international airport, Ben Gurion, to worry about. Others balked at the cost of staffing a security force with federal employees. American carriers were also adamant that a rule requiring checked bags to be matched to passengers would create unbearable delays that would hurt their profits. Most American airlines also failed to scan checked luggage in the first place, as there was no federal law requiring them to do so. By the end of the 1990s the decentralized and deregulated nature of the American airline industry, together with a push toward privatizing security measures, stood in stark contrast to the state of Israeli air security.

The BAA Approach

Air security efforts in Great Britain also differed from U.S. trends. The British Airports Authority (BAA) was founded in April 1966 by an act of Parliament that gave it operating control of four airports: Heathrow, Gatwick, and Stansted, all in the greater London metropolitan area, and Prestwick in Scotland. Over time, BAA took the operations at airports in Southampton in England, and Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen in Scotland. By the 1990s the publicly traded company branched out to operate airports at Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, and Boston in the United States, and at Melbourne and Perth in Australia. In the aftermath of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988, BAA undertook an extensive reevaluation of the security measures it utilized at its British airports. By the late 1990s, BAA had set the security standard for high-volume airports in Europe.

The first area of BAA reforms focused on the screening of checked baggage. BAA developed a five-stage system that was fully operational in all of its British airports by June 1998 at a total cost of $300 million. All checked baggage passed through Level 1 security, which automatically screened the bags through x-ray machines. Those bags that were flagged at the first level—about 30 percent of the total—were then directed to a human operator for additional screening of the x-ray image in Level 2. For those bags that were still not cleared—about 3 percent of all Level 2 luggage—operators then rein-spected the x-ray image a third time in Level 3. At Level 4 security, a human operator reviewed all baggage x-rays that still could not be positively cleared in the previous steps. Any remaining bags from Level 4 that were still suspicious were then sent to Level 5, staffed by a special assessment team. In the first years of operation, the need for a Level 5 threat assessment occurred fewer than ten times per year. While most airports used human operators to man the x-ray machines from Level 2 upward, Manchester's system was automated through the first two levels. At some airports, such as Stansted, the new system required an addition onto the existing facilities to make room for the equipment; at others, such as Gatwick, the modifications were built within the existing facility.

In accordance with British law, all passengers at BAA airports were screened by the same security standard. After presenting tickets and identification at an entry point, passengers were taken to a separate departure lounge, where they passed through x-ray machines and metal detectors. A predetermined number of passengers were also hand searched. All carryon items were x-rayed at the same time. Those articles that failed the inspection—about 20 percent of all carryon items—were then individually inspected. In 2000 BAA also began supplementing its x-ray machines with three-dimensional scanners and equipment that could detect trace elements of explosive devices.

About one-third of BAA's staff worked in the area of security. Those on the front lines were given a minimum of three weeks of classroom and practical training before being put to work. On the job BAA staff needed to adhere to the same security checks that passengers endured, including x-ray and metal detection screening. Ian Hutcheson, head of Group Security for BAA, noted in his December 2001 testimony to the U.S. House Subcommittee on Aviation that "The key difference between the UK approach and that of many other countries is that staff are screened to the same standard as passengers when entering airside areas." He then pointed out that many other countries rely completely on the possession of a valid ID. "Such an approach is fraught with difficulties given the typical working population of a large airport." He added, "The 'human factor' can be the weakest link in the process, leading to a lapse in security."

Despite the improved security measures, problems still cropped up at BAA airports. In October 2001 the London Times announced that employee background checks had not been conducted by Securicor, the private company that BAA hired to provide its security staff, although counterterrorist checks had been required by law. One undocumented worker had even provided security on a plane scheduled to fly Prime Minister Tony Blair to the Middle East. On February 11, 2002, robbers at Heathrow Airport stole £4.6 million from a British Airways van that had taken custody of the cash off of a jet from Bahrain. Just five weeks later, another robbery on March 19, 2002, netted a crew of thieves £2.1 million from a South African Airlines flight. In both cases, police declared that the robberies were likely committed with the help of security staff at Heathrow, Europe's busiest airport and the fifth busiest in the world. "Passengers should be extremely worried," aviation expert Chris Yates of Jane's Transport told the BBC, "If they can get airside they have access to aircraft. It only takes seconds to board an empty aircraft and plant a bomb."

Air Safety in the United States During the 1990s

In many respects, air safety in the United States lagged behind Israeli or European measures throughout the 1990s. Part of the problem stemmed from the rapid changes in the airline business after 1978's Airline Deregulation Act. Prior to that time, the Civil Aeronautics Board regulated air routes and established fares that airlines could charge. While the new economic competition was a boon to deal-seeking consumers who increasingly flew on one of the new, regional airlines, financial pressures on the industry led to aggressive cost-cutting measures on every carrier. As a group the airline industry insisted that additional security measures follow a strict cost-benefit analysis to protect the bottom line. Even measures that cost little but seemed inconvenient—such as the baggage match system—were fought by the American air industry, which feared that consumers might choose to take other means of transportation instead of flying.

Deregulation of the airline industry was followed by a similar trend in the federal government. Committed to decreasing bureaucracy, the Ronald Reagan administration (1981-89) slashed the inspection staff of the FAA by 12 percent in 1982-83 alone. Former Department of Transportation inspector general Mary Schiavo described the cumulative impact of these two trends in her 1997 book Flying Blind, Flying Safe: "In reality, the FAA is at a loss to know how to deal with this new style of airline business, and with new threats to airplanes. The discount airlines that appeared and grew rapidly in the late 1980s and 1990s left the FAA stunned and blinking at a whirlwind of leased and used planes, contracted and subcontracted maintenance facilities, and inexperienced pilots and flight crews."

The bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 led to a special federal inquiry on aviation security that condemned the FAA's negligence in enforcing its own rules. The public outcry over the scandal led to the 1990 Aviation Security Improvement Act. The legislation mandated criminal background checks for all security staff and specified minimum training skills and educational requirements for employees. American carriers were ordered to screen all checked baggage and match it with passengers on all flights in Europe and the Middle East. Explosive detection devices were also made mandatory for all U.S. airlines for flights originating at international airports. Despite the stringent new rules and its own past scandals, the FAA still failed to implement its legislative mandate by the mid-1990s.

Even worse than the FAA's record of safety in the air was its oversight of security measures on the ground. Between 1998 and 2000 the seven largest airlines—Delta, American, United, Northwest, Southwest, US Air, and Trans World—accumulated 1,674 security fines by the FAA for penalties totaling $11,960,225. In bomb-detection tests conducted by the Department of Transportation (DOT) in 1995-96, agents successfully took simulated bombs past screeners 40 percent of the time. While the test was an improvement over a 1993 study that found 75 percent of fake bombs making it past screeners, security at some major international airports had not improved at all. The Los Angeles (LAX) airport detected only 10 percent of simulated bombs in the DOT test, while screeners at Miami International Airport found only 15 percent of the devices. At Chicago's O'Hare Airport, the rate was 22 percent; at Boston's Logan Airport it was 23 percent. While Mary Schiavo used her tenure as DOT inspector general from 1990-96 to publicize these and other lapses in FAA supervision, the agency continued to fail in its role as a security watchdog. Even after the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security in 1997 reiterated the chronic problems described in prior federal studies, airlines continued to rack up hundreds of security fines each year.

Much of the problem stemmed from the sub-contracting of security duties by airlines to private companies, which in turn operated with little oversight or regulatory enforcement by the FAA. One company, Argenbright Security, became a byword for corporate corruption and dereliction of duty that eventually led to criminal charges against some of its officers. The company's Philadelphia office routinely falsified background checks, educational histories, and training procedures and then certified the bogus results to comply with FAA regulations. Argenbright also continued to hire convicted criminals for security positions at the Philadelphia airport even after it had already incurred penalties for the same practice. In Phoenix and Detroit, Argenbright did not complete background checks on all of its employees, including one security officer in Detroit who was employed despite having served four years in the army in Yemen, a center of terrorist activity in the Middle East. The company racked up $1.2 million in fines by the FAA in 2000 alone.

The Argenbright scandal demonstrated the pitfalls of a privatized airline security system that strove for profitability with little regulatory supervision. In an Aviation Today report in March 2002, Eric Grasser and David Evans summarized the comments of one former FAA official on the shortcomings of the current system, stating that the low wages offered upon hiring created a situation in which "security is measured by cost savings." Thus, the poorly paid posts are filled by people who may have difficulty finding other jobs, and may even acquire a second job at the airport at one of its many concessionaries. The result, Grasser and Evans said, is that "some screeners end up working a second job at the airport and get little sleep before they arrive for screening duties." In contrast to Israel's emphasis on highly trained and motivated security officers, the U.S. system continued to treat human intelligence as a minor factor in its security efforts.

Recent History and the Future

Trouble at Logan Airport

While it is arguable whether strict enforcement of existing air security regulations could have prevented the terrorist hijackings on September 11, 2001, there is little doubt that the terrorist team planned its strategy to take advantage of known lapses in the security system. The origin of the first two hijacked aircraft was Boston's Logan Airport, which had earned a reputation for chronic corruption and mismanagement. The Massachusetts Port Authority shared 136 fines of $178,000 with American Airlines and United Airlines for security violations at Logan between 1997-99. Top positions at the Port Authority had traditionally been filled through patronage appointments without regard to any knowledge of aviation. The director of Logan Airport at the time of the hijackings, Virginia Buckingham, had served as the lieutenant governor's chief of staff, and the airport's security director, Joseph Lawless, was a former state trooper who had provided security at the Massachusetts State House.

Despite the problems at Logan, the FAA actually urged the Port Authority to be less strict in conducting its background checks on security employees. In May 2001 the FAA's chief security manager, Michael Canavan, asked Lawless to defer to airlines in making background checks, even though Lawless had discovered numerous lapses in the current system. As Sean Murphy reported in the Boston Globe on December 12, 2001, Canavan had issued the directive to Lawless after meeting with airline industry lobbyists who complained about the additional background checks. "It is unfortunate that such instances of noncompliance occurred," Canavan had written to Lawless, concluding, "I am asking your help in the resolution of this situation, and ask that you accept certification from U.S. air carriers that the required criminal history records check has been completed for their employees." In the wake of September 11, Canavan resigned from his position at the FAA, and both Buckingham and Lawless were ousted from their positions in the public outrage that followed the attacks.

Renewed Vigilance at American Airports

On September 14, 2001, Congress approved a $15 billion bailout of the U.S. air industry and committed additional funds to security operations as part of a $40 billion emergency spending package. Officials also reviewed security measures at American airports during a four-day ban on air traffic imposed on September 11. After two decades of criticism of airline security during the era of deregulation, the industry and FAA could no longer duck charges that their performance had been abysmal.

The most obvious change in airline security after September 11 concerned the enforcement of existing security measures. As the September 11 terrorists had used box cutters to stage their hijackings, similar items such as scissors, pocket knives, and razors were now routinely confiscated from passengers. Flammable items such as large aerosol containers or lighter fluid were also banned from the passenger cabin. After Richard Reid's attempted bombing, passengers could also expect their shoes to be inspected before being checked in. As an additional stopgap measure, National Guard forces were placed in airports to beef up the security presence. In light of the renewed emphasis on safety, the FAA now recommended that passengers arrive two hours before their domestic flights in order to pass through more rigorous security screenings.

Other security measures were more difficult to implement. In the month after the terrorist attacks, most airlines had not complied with an FAA directive to scan all checked baggage with explosive-detection devices at the nation's highest-risk airports. The FAA came under criticism itself, however, when it was reported that the agency had failed to install about twenty of the machines that it had purchased, and that the machines it had put into service were only used part of the time. The controversies added to the perception that little progress had been made in air security in the months after September 11.

Civil rights watchdogs were also vigilant against abuses related to passenger profiling. The DOT had already implemented a Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS) that was used before September 11. Like the Israeli screening system, CAPPS selected passengers for further investigation based on factors such as flight origin and destination, method of payment, and whether the trip was one way. While the CAPPS system had been reviewed and approved by the Department of Justice, some of its screening factors were kept secret, which raised suspicions that it might actually be a racial profiling system directed at passengers of Middle Eastern descent. Even more controversial was the removal of some Middle Eastern passengers from domestic flights after other passengers voiced fears that they might be terrorists. As Sam Podberesky, assistant general counsel of the DOT, told National Public Radio in October 2001 after one such event, "If the decision is based solely on the fact that a person is an Arab or an Arab American or of a Muslim religion … if that's the sole reason for a person being selected for special security procedures or being removed from an aircraft, that's illegal. That does not preclude, however, airlines or pilots from looking for suspicious activities by anyone on board the aircraft."

Federalizing Air Security

Hoping to resolve some of the uncertainty over air security, Congress passed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act on November 19, 2001. Under the act, responsibility for screening all passengers and baggage was taken away from the airlines and put under federal authority. The act also charged the federal government to screen, hire, and train the newly federalized security work force at the nation's 429 commercial airports. The size of the work force was estimated to be between 30,000-40,000 employees, each of whom was required to be a U.S. citizen with English-language skills. After two years airports could opt out of the program and contract security services to private companies; in the interim, five airports were granted the authority to retain private security firms in pilot programs.

The new law set the date of January 18, 2002, for all checked baggage to be matched with passengers on every domestic flight, the initial step in requiring all baggage to be screened on U.S. carriers. The act also made provisions for the reinforcement of cockpit doors. Finally, the law added armed federal air marshals to many domestic flights and required them to be on flights that landed at Washington DC's Reagan National Airport. This last provision riled some Canadian officials who feared that they would also have to add armed officers on flights through American air space.

Creation of the Transportation Security Administration

In a move that recognized the FAA's abysmal record on air security supervision, the new legislation created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to run the federal air security force. Housed within the DOT, the TSA was charged with oversight of all the nation's transportation systems, although its creation as part of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act showed that its emphasis would be on the nation's air traffic. The new agency also assumed control of training and supervising air security staff. Despite its daunting tasks, President George W. Bush struck a hopeful note while signing the legislation that brought the TSA into being:

Security comes first. The federal government will set high standards, and we will enforce them. These have been difficult days for Americans who fly and for American aviation. A proud industry has been hit hard. But this nation has seen the dedication and spirit of our pilots and flight crews, and the hundreds of thousands of hard-working people who keep America flying. We know they will endure. I'm confident this industry will grow and prosper.

Although many of these reforms had been advocated since deregulation in 1978, the sudden introduction of tighter security measures after September 11 caught the travel industry and government officials by surprise. In the month after the federal government took over primary responsibility for air security, forty-three airport shutdowns paralyzed air traffic across the United States. The incidents ranged from the discovery of a suspected shoe bomb in San Francisco to the realization that a screening device at LAX had been disconnected and there-fore inoperable. When medical personnel responding to an emergency at New York City's LaGuardia Airport bypassed security screeners on March 2, 2002, all flights were immediately grounded and the terminal was evacuated for ninety minutes. While most travelers appreciated the vigilance that security officers now practiced, others claimed that flying had now become too inconvenient.


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Timothy G. Borden



January 1973 Federal law mandates that all passengers and carryon baggage must be screened on U.S. flights.

June 27-July 4, 1976 An Air France plane is held hostage by group of Palestinian and German terrorists. The standoff ends when Israeli forces storm the plane at Entebbe, Uganda.

December 21, 1988 A bomb on Pan Am Flight 103 fromLondon to New York City explodes over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 259 passengers and eleven victims on the ground.

September 11, 2001 Islamic extremist terrorists hijack three aircraft—American Airlines Flight 11, United Airlines Flight 175, and United Airlines Flight 77—and attack the World Trade Center buildings in New York City and the Pentagon building in Washington, DC. A fourth hijacked plane, United Airlines Flight 93, crashes in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, after a struggle between the passengers and the terrorists.

October 8, 2001 The Office of Homeland Security is established, with Governor Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania as its first director.

October 25, 2001 After extensive controversies over security lapses at Boston's Logan Airport, the executive director of the Massachusetts Port Authority resigns.

November 19, 2001 The Aviation and TransportationSecurity Act is signed into law. The act creates the Transportation Security Administration within the Department of Transportation.

December 22, 2001 Al-Qaeda operative Richard C. Reid attempts to ignite a bomb hidden in his shoe on American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami. He is subdued by the flight crew and passengers.

February 17, 2002 The U.S. federal government takes over responsibility for security from airlines.

Hijacking—Not Just a Problem for the Aviation Industry

While airline hijackings command the most international headlines, other forms of public transportation—which generally have much less stringent security measures—are also targeted by criminals and terrorists. With 4,000 intercity bus stops and 140,000 miles of rail in the United States alone, it is extremely difficult for ground transportation companies to ensure passenger safety to the degree that is possible in the country's airports.

This point was driven home in October 2001 when Damir Igric, a Croatian in the United States on an expired visa, slashed the throat of the driver of a Greyhound bus bound for Orlando, Florida, and crashed the bus, killing six passengers, including himself. Due to the already tense atmosphere created by the terrorist attacks on September 11, Greyhound officials acted swiftly, shutting down its service nationwide for approximately seven hours. To the relief of everyone, the FBI determined that Igric was a disturbed individual acting alone, not a member of a terrorist network.

Similar incidents have occurred in other countries. In Taipei, Taiwan, in June 2001, a married couple angry over treatment they had received in a court dispute hijacked a bus carrying 14 passengers for four hours. Police eventually stormed the bus, and no injuries were reported. Five people in Malaysia were arrested after they hijacked an airport bus, armed with axes and machetes, and robbed passengers of passports, airplane tickets, and other valuables. The North Caucus region in Russia, where separatists are pushing for independence in several Russian republics, including Chechnya, has also suffered numerous bus hijackings. In July 2001 a group of Chechens held 40 bus passengers hostage for 12 hours, demanding the release of five of their comrades, themselves jailed for a 1994 bus hijacking. Two people were injured when Russian commandos retook the bus.

The high seas are not exempt from hijackings, either. In May 2000 ten Haitian policemen on a ferry bound from Port-Au-Prince to the Haitian island Pestel held the crew at gunpoint and demanded the boat be sailed to the United States, where they planned to seek political asylum. U.S. federal authorities discovered the ferry near the Bahamas and reported that no one was injured.

In the United States in particular following September 11, the transportation industry was forced to take a hard look at its existing security measures. Aside from the changes made at the country's airports, Greyhound began experimenting with metal detectors, albeit at only a handful of stations. The United States' passenger rail service, Amtrak, instituted a computer program that could crosscheck ticket purchasers against FBI watch lists. Amtrak also requested US$3.2 billion from Congress for improved railroad security, specifically the hiring of more police and the repair of evacuation routes in some older tunnels. These and other safety improvements may help render ground transportation in the United States less vulnerable to attack in the future.

Mary Fackler Schiavo

1955- Mary Fackler Schiavo grew up on her family's farm in the small, northwestern Ohio town of Pioneer. Fascinated by aviation since childhood, she earned her pilot's license at Ohio State University in 1974 before attending Harvard University, where she completed her B.A. in 1976. She returned to Ohio State University to earn a master's degree in public administration in 1977 and completed her education with a law degree from New York University in 1980.

Schiavo initially pursued a career as an attorney. From 1982-86 she served on the U.S. Department of Justice's Organized Crime and Racketeering Task Force, where she served as an investigator and prosecutor. In 1989 Schiavo was named assistant to the secretary of labor, Elizabeth Dole, and supervised union elections. From 1990-1996 Schiavo served as the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), a position that she used to crusade for consumer safety and airline industry reforms. She was especially critical of the FAA during her tenure for its repeated failures to promote air safety. In her 1997 book Flying Blind, Flying Safe she wrote, "The FAA zealously guards information, deliberately burying it in suppressed reports, not because of a vague threat to passengers but because of the very real threat to profits. Informing or angering passengers with safety details is just plain bad for business."

Faced with a difficult pregnancy, Schiavo resigned from the DOT in 1996 and moved to Columbus, Ohio, with her husband and two children. Schiavo taught as a professor at Ohio State University from 1997-2001 and returned to private practice with the Washington, DC, law firm of Baum, Hedlund, Aristei, Guildord, and Schiavo. After her departure from the DOT, Congress finally enacted one of Schiavo's major reform proposals when it removed the FAA's charge to "promote" the airline industry as one of its primary mandates.

Air Hijackings, 1975-2000

YearAir Hijackings