A Brief (and Totally Fascinating) History of Airport Security

Jennifer Bui/Thrillist
Jennifer Bui/Thrillist

If you've ever wondered what it was like to go through airport security in the 1980s, look no further than today's TSA PreCheck. What passes for the “easy line” at security in 2015 is pretty much all we had to do back in those days, except without the leg warmers and "No Fear" muscle shirts. What's even crazier still, is that it wasn't too long ago when you could just show up at the airport, hand them your ticket, and board the damn plane. Like it was nothing.

So how did we go from that to standing in a mile-long security line and getting groped by a dude in a blue shirt? Here’s a brief timeline of how airport security evolved from handshakes to hands-on in just 45 years.

1970s airport security

July 17, 1970

New Orleans International Airport becomes the first to use metal detectors and passenger profiling to promote airline safety.

November 10, 1972

Hijackers threaten to fly Southern Airways Flight 49 into a nuclear reactor. In response, the FAA requires airports to screen all passengers and their carry-on bags by January 5, 1973. The checkpoints will be overseen by the airlines and security personnel contracted from private companies.

August 5, 1974

Congress passes the Air Transportation Security Act, introducing and requiring metal detectors and X-ray screening of carry-on bags at ALL US airports. Consumer advocates sue, citing that the metal detectors are a violation of the Fourth Amendment's protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, and the courts agree. However, despite deeming them a violation, they also declare them legal so long as the screening is a) universal, and b) used only to search for weapons and explosives.

Baggage X-ray

December 21, 1988

A bomb explodes on Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 people on board and 11 on the ground. As a result, US carriers are required to X-ray all CHECKED luggage.

September 11, 2001

After 9/11, all objects with a blade or point are banned from carry-on bags. Passengers are no longer allowed to congregate by the front lavatory of any commercial airliner.

November 19, 2001

In further response to the 9/11 hijackings, the Aviation and Transportation Security Act is passed and the federal government assumes responsibility for all airline security screening. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is created.

Removing shoes at airport security
Flickr/David Prasad

December 22, 2001

Richard Reid tries to ignite explosives hidden in his shoes on a flight from Paris to Miami. As a result, TSA begins randomly searching people’s shoes. Somewhere, J. Edgar Hoover is sad he missed this.

September 16,  2004

Passengers are required to remove their jackets before going through security. Those without boarding passes are no longer allowed past security checkpoints, and embarrassing “Welcome Home” signs are sadly now relegated to baggage claim.

December 17, 2004

Butane lighters are banned from being carried onto planes.

March 31, 2005

All lighters are banned from commercial airplanes.

August 10, 2006

TSA mandates that all shoes be removed when going through security.

3-1-1 Bag

August 10, 2006

British officials foil a terror plot that involved blowing up airplanes with liquid explosives. In response, all liquids, gels, and aerosols are prohibited from carry-on bags.

September 25, 2006

TSA changes its ban on all liquids to allow 3oz containers packed into 1qt Ziploc bags, known as the 3-1-1 rule.

TSA Search

December 25, 2009

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempts to blow up Northwest Flight 253 with a bomb hidden in his underwear. TSA calls for the implementation of full-body scanners.

December 2010

TSA begins replacing old metal detectors with “advanced imaging technology," essentially allowing some guy in a room somewhere to pretty much see you naked.

Nun getting searched

January 18, 2013

After essentially “nude” images from full-body scanners are leaked to the media, the TSA announces it will change to a new version of the body scanners which produces a more cartoon-like image. Passengers can still elect to forgo the full-body imaging in favor of being patted down by a TSA agent of the same gender.

April 25, 2013

TSA announces it will allow pocket knives with blades under 3in on planes. But still no facial cream.

June 5, 2013

And that was fast; TSA changes its mind and says no to small pocket knives on board.

July 7, 2014

Realizing explosives could be hidden inside cell phones, US officials begin confiscating any electronic device that cannot be turned on. People still sit at the charging station eating Cinnabon and charging nothing.

Jennifer Bui/Thrillist