The Origins of Security Screening at Airports

Some readers may be familiar with the origins of airport security screening. I wasn’t, however, and the history is pretty interesting.  In the 1960s, airplane hijacking became surprisingly common:

The first skyjacking of a United States airliner occurred in May, 1961 with Cuba as the destination. Thus, a reverse flow of refugees from non-Communist to Communist countries began. The movement was slow at first; seven United States air hijackings occurred in the first seven years. However, in 1968, skyjacking suddenly became a major problem for United States aircraft. In that year alone, eighteen United States airplanes were air hijacked as well as twelve foreign airplanes. In 1969, the number of attempted air hijackings involving United States aircraft for the year had risen to forty, of which thirty-three were  successful. Of the forty-six attempts on airplanes from other nations, thirty-seven were successful.

Since 1969, the number of air hijackings each year has declined. In 1970, fifty-six successful air hijackings and twenty-eight unsuccessful attempts took place world wide, with eighteen successful air hijackings and eight unsuccessful attempts involving United States planes. In 1971, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reported twenty-seven attempted skyjackings on United States planes with twelve successful, and thirty-two attempts on foreign planes with eleven successful. Between January 1 and September 1, 1972, twenty-nine attempted air hijackings were made on United States aircraft of which eight were successful, and twenty-one attempts on foreign planes with eleven successes.

Patrick W. McGinley & Stephen P. Downs, Airport Searches and Seizures-A Reasonable Approach, 41 Fordham L. Rev. 293, 294-297 (1972).

Government-mandated security screening was tried fairly late in response to these hijackings; it wasn’t mandated until 1972. As recounted in United States v. Davis, 483 F.2d 893 (9th Cir. 1973):

On February 1, 1972, the FAA issued a rule requiring air carriers to adopt and put into use within 72 hours a screening system “acceptable” to the FAA “to prevent or deter the carriage aboard its aircraft of sabotage devices or weapons in carry-on baggage or on or about the persons of passengers.” This system was to require the screening of all airline passengers “by one or more of the following systems: behavioral profile, magnetometer, identification check, physical search.”

In July 1972, the President “ordered” the screening of all passengers and inspection of all carry-on baggage on all “shuttle-type” flights. On August 1, 1972, the FAA issued a directive that no airline “shall permit any person” meeting the profile to board a plane unless his carry-on baggage had been searched and he had been cleared through a metal detector or had submitted to a “consent search” prior to boarding. On December 5, 1972, the FAA ordered that searches of all carry-on items and magnetometer screening of all passengers be instituted by January 5, 1973.

The number of annual attempted hijackings dropped to single digits soon after, and then to zero or close to it.