- Before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, passenger screening was comparatively minimal.
- Screening has ramped up, creating long lines at airports and other hassles.
- Security experts say risks remain and are evolving.
More than a fifth of the U.S. population is too young to remember what air travel was like before Sept. 11, 2001.
Passengers' loved ones used to be able to greet and bid them farewell at the gate. Travelers weren't required to take off their shoes and belts or remove liquids from carry-on luggage before going through checkpoints, let alone wait in long security lines. It was years before airlines charged passengers to check their bags or select a seat, though average domestic fares are cheaper today.
The entire industry, from airport security to flight attendant training to even the number of airlines in existence, was reshaped by the deadliest terror attack in U.S. history. That clear, blue morning in late summer, 19 hijackers turned four Boeing jetliners — two American Airlines and two United Airlines planes —into missiles. They crashed two of them into the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon. The fourth crashed in a field in southern Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the attack.
Commercial flights were halted for several days. Airline executives pondered the industry's future.
"We immediately grounded all our airplanes," said David Neeleman, founder and then-CEO of JetBlue Airways, at that point a new carrier that debuted 19 months before 9/11. "We had planes landing in the Carolinas, Kansas. Our CFO was at the printer. He was proofing the prospectus for our IPO."
Watching the events unfold, "I started thinking: Why would anybody want to travel again with this going on?"
Global passenger traffic recovered but it took two years, as travelers were reluctant to fly and business travel demand plunged because of the attacks and a recession.
U.S. airlines lost $8 billion in 2001. The industry wasn't profitable again until 2006. Losses topped $60 billion over that five-year period and airlines again lost money in 2008 during the Great Recession. Job cuts in the wake of 9/11 were in the tens of thousands and workers faced massive pay cuts. Only the Covid pandemic has threatened more jobs but a record $54 billion federal bailout prohibited airlines from laying off staff.
U.S. airline employment even before the pandemic still hadn't recovered to the 2001 peak.
Consolidation and fees
The financial turmoil sparked a wave of bankruptcies and consolidation among airlines that left four carriers, American, United, Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines in control of about three-quarters of U.S. commercial air travel market by 2018.
In the years after 9/11 several major airlines stopped serving free meals and instead started selling food, and charging customers to check bags to help offset higher fuel costs and other financial strain. During a 10-year profit streak that was stopped by the Covid-19 pandemic last year, airlines carved up the coach cabin into smaller classes, began charging for certain seats, even those without extra legroom, as well as early boarding and other perks.
Legroom was reduced as more seats were added to planes to maximize revenue. Airlines generated billions of dollars from passenger fees in recent years, but between 1999 and 2019, the average price of a domestic itinerary fell from $530 to $323, when adjusting for inflation, according to the Department of Transportation.
"There's enormous consumer demand for the services that airlines provide and that's true today even during Covid," said Gary Kennedy, who was general counsel at American Airlines from 2003 until 2014. "Yet through so much of the airline industry history to translate that into a profit has been difficult."
Airport security was handled by private contractors before Sept. 11 and was lax compared with the years after the attacks, with little scrutiny of checked luggage. Travelers passed through metal detectors and friends and family could accompany them to the gate. Airport passenger screenings for weapons or firearms that were federally-mandated in 1973 were aimed at thwarting hijackings, which were far more common in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Airlines told passengers to arrive 15 to 30 minutes earlier than usual for the new screenings, according to a January 1973 article in the New York Times.
Fast-forward to 2001 and little had changed. The knives and boxcutters that the hijackers brought on board on Sept. 11, 2001 went through checkpoints easily; they weren't prohibited.
After the attacks, in November 2001, then-President George W. Bush signed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, which created the Transportation Security Administration, handing passenger screening over to federal employees. It also added more Federal Air Marshals.
Passengers were then prohibited from bringing knives, razor blades and other sharp objects in the cabin.
"The system on 9/11 was fundamentally the same one we started with in '73," said Jeff Price, who teaches aviation safety management at Metropolitan State University of Denver and was airport director at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport on Sept 11, 2001. "I look at the system today like a piece of Swiss cheese where there's certain gaps in it. I look at the pre-9/11 system as just a gigantic hole right in the middle of the cheese. It amazed me that no one exploited it in the two decades prior to that."
A hijacking hasn't occurred on U.S. soil since 9/11. Security threats have changed, and so have screening procedures. Foiled plots like the 2001 "shoe bomber" attempt forces most travelers to remove their shoes at checkpoints. Liquids and gels, with the exception of small containers, aren't allowed in carry-on bags after British officials stopped a terror plot to bring liquid explosives on flights in 2006.
Travelers that opt to pay for pre-screening services like TSA's PreCheck undergo a background check and can bypass some of the checkpoint screening procedures.
Price said the current screening system partially aims to deter terrorists.
"You need both: actual security measures and you also need to get away with a little security theater to help with deterrence," he said.
The TSA has faced criticism in recent years after the Department of Homeland Security's watchdog in 2015 found agents missed test weapons 95% of the time. TSA agents at airports last year caught 3,257 firearms, double the rate of 2019.
TSA Administrator David Pekoske defended the agency.
"Our system is much more risk-based and intelligence focused than it was in 2002," he said in an interview. "We continue to make improvements every day."
Price says threats are evolving, to include cybersecurity issues and drones.
Flight attendants' changed profession
The 9/11 attacks had a profound impact on flight crews. Eight pilots and 25 flight attendants were working the four flights that were hijacked.
Ken Diaz, United chapter president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA labor union remembers checking in for a flight he was working to Chicago from Newark Liberty International Airport the morning of 9/11. Some of his friends were crew members on Flight 93, which crashed near Shanksville, Pa.
Sara Nelson, international president of the union, which represents some 50,000 cabin crew members at more than a dozen airlines, said she and a colleague, when they returned to flying later in September 2001, placed their hands around their necks during takeoff so that potential hijackers wouldn't slit their throats "and they would get our hands instead."
Julia Simpson, who was a Boston-based flight attendant at American Airlines at the time, said the airline allowed flight attendants to schedule themselves with friends in the months after the attacks for added emotional support.
More than 40% of United's flight attendants were hired after 9/11, as were more than a third of American's. But Nelson said flight attendant training is still informed by those events.
"By the time they get their wings it's fundamental to the training they've had," she said, who started as a flight attendant at United in 1996.
Diaz said there are new procedures, including notifications to crews for when a pilot exits the flight deck to use the lavatory. Flight attendants are also more dispersed throughout the cabin during boarding.
But demands on flight attendants have grown over the years. Airlines cut staffing to federal minimums on many flights, at first domestically, and later internationally. Diaz said a Boeing 757 is generally staffed with four flight attendants, down from six in the 9/11 era.
Airlines are also more careful about capacity and planes fly fuller. In January 2000, typically a weak-demand month, U.S. flights were about 63% full. In January 2020, just before the pandemic they were 80% full.
"Because of the plane being more full right now they would jump to help a flight crew in need of assistance," said Diaz, adding that "all the airlines have cut staffing so there's more of a workload on each flight attendant."
Nelson argues that airlines have to do more to beef up flight attendant training. The TSA started offering self-defense classes after 9/11, but they remain optional and flight attendants have to pay for transportation and take them on their own time.
Classes resumed recently after a Covid hiatus, and unions say interest has shot up, partly because of a surge in unruly, and sometimes violent passenger behavior over the past year.
Asked if there is ever a time when she doesn't think about 9/11 when she starts working a flight, Nelson replied: "Never."
--CNBC's Phil LeBeau and Nate Rattner contributed to this article.