The History of Airport Security
The plane had just taken off from Portland when a dark haired man handed a note to the stewardess. He demanded $200,000 or else he'd blow up the plane with the explosives in his bag. The airline agreed to hand over the money. Then, the man who'd purchased a ticket under the name Dan Cooper lowered the stairs at the back of the plane and parachuted down, along with his loot, into the stormy darkness. He's never been found. But his story has become a folk legend, inspiring a movie and a Waylon Jennings song.
Following the infamous D.B. Cooper skyjacking in 1971, aircraft makers created a device called a "Cooper Vane", that made it impossible to lower the rear stairs during flight. That's just one of many changes mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration over the years in response to increasing security problems. A year earlier, for example, in September 1970, Palestinians threatened to destroy four hijacked airplanes, two of them American.
In response, President Nixon put "sky marshals" on select flights to deter hijackers. David Leach was one of the first sky marshals. He says back then, commercial flying was still a novelty.
But sky marshals couldn't ride on every flight, and the hijackings didn't end. So in December 1972, the FAA gave the airlines one month to begin searching all passengers and their bags. Dennis O'Madigan, then Director of Security for Piedmont Airlines, says metal detectors known as magnetometers were rigged up from a device originally used by loggers.
Some passengers found themselves stumbling through the new metal detectors, says David Leach who's now with the FAA's Security Office.
Leach also remembers that consumer advocates worried the metal detectors could be dangerous, until a study determined they gave off less radiation than a luminous dial on a watch. Instead, Leach says, the more critical question that took the FAA to court was whether the machines violated the Fourth Amendment, the protection against illegal searches and seizures.
The policy of universal searches added on top of the hijackings and bombings changed the tenor of air travel forever, says Dennis O'Madigan with Piedmont Airlines.
The next big wave of security measures came more than 15 years later. Just before Christmas 1988, a bomb onboard Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland killed 270 people. In response, the FAA began to screen portable computers and radios more carefully on flights from Europe and the Middle East. It also required that only bags accompanied by a passenger may board a plane. Still, it's not easy to protect a thin aluminum aircraft flying at 30,000 feet, says Irish Flynn with the FAA.
Until recently, the FAA has usually taken steps to improve air safety as a reaction to a hijacking or a bombing. Today, the government says it's planning ahead, for example, developing ways for airlines to deal with hijackers armed with chemical or biological weapons. In the meantime, the FAA hopes that passengers will be tolerant of airport security measures. Because while it may be the hundredth time you've heard the question, "Has anyone unknown to you asked you to carry an item on this flight?", the FAA reminds you that they're just trying to provide security in a dangerous world. From Washington, I'm Annie Wu for The Savvy Traveler.
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