Starting from the end of last month, when passengers travel from many Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East into the United States, they are no longer allowed to bring electronics larger than smartphone onboard as part of their carry-on luggage. Shortly after the U.S. announced this electronics restriction, the U.K. followed similarly. The three huge air carriers in the Middle East, Emirates, Qatar, and Etihad, are most affected by this newly enacted and executed security ban. These three carriers soon announced policy changes, such as allowing laptops to be checked-in at the gate, to minimize the negative effect this ban has on their customers. Yet despite their attempts, when you board Emirates’ signature A380 double-decker to fly from Dubai to New York next time, you will not be able to work on your laptop nor could you entertain yourself from an iPad. U.S. authorities have claimed that this ban is based on latest intelligence reports, which have indicated a possibility of terrorists inserting small bombs within electronic devices. This claim is understandable: after all, the lack of an effective and thorough security screening system creates room for many terrorist attacks. However, to what extent government authorities can exert their control in the name of safety is always debatable. Why is the electronics ban only on certain countries with a Muslim majority, with no U.S. carriers affected? How about the potential security threat in the checked baggage, which is often less scrutinized? In fact, arguments about how increasingly stricter airport security measures result in the violation of personal rights is never new.
Cathay Pacific A350 at Hong Kong International Airport (HKG) (picture taken by myself)
While most people immediately relate aviation-related terrorist attacks to 9/11, the security situation for air travel had not been favorable before that. Starting from the 1920s, there has been incidents of plane hijacks, and they reached a peak in the 1960s. While these hijacks posted a great threat to the safety of passengers and crew on board, little had initially been done to improve the situation. Looking further, we could see that not all of the hijacks could be categorized as terrorist attacks. Most of the hijackers did not intend to do any harm; they instead carried clear political or monetary motives and planned to use the passengers and crew as hostage to add leverage to their negotiations. Besides, many successful counter-hijacker operations, such as the famous Operation Entebbe, to rescue the hostage reduced the number of casualties to around zero. It was not until the 1970s after a series of deadly plane terrorist attacks happened that the government started to take some actions, and clearly, each serious individual event provided impetus for government to enact new security laws and regulations.
While airlines had previously only inspected the baggage of the 0.5% of passengers who looked suspicious, Nixon administration’s 1974 Air Transportation Security Act demanded that metal detectors be installed at all U.S. airports and that all carry-on bags be screened by x-ray. Despite the proliferation of aircraft hijackings, the Act was still seen as a bold move at that time. Some critics argued that the search of personal properties at security checkpoints was a violation of the Fourth Amendment, but the Supreme Court did rule that to be “reasonable.” Regardless, the 1974 Air Transportation Act did lay down the basic legal framework for airport security procedures for almost three decades: airlines were in charge of the transportation security and they usually contracted out security screening service to a third party.
The tragic events that happened on September 11, 2001 signaled a huge change of aviation security procedures in the U.S., with more profound ramifications extending across the globe shortly after. The U.S. government finally stopped to be detached from the actual security screening process: the well-known Aviation and Transportation Security Act, enacted in November, called for the establishment of Transportation Security Administration (TSA), officially marking the federalization of airport security services. The careful inspections of shoes and jackets resulted in lines of passengers in front of checkpoints as we know them today.
In post-9/11 era, terrorists continued to think of new ways to find loopholes in airport security system, and the authorities continued to devise new ways to fix those perceived loopholes. This dynamic can be exemplified by the restrictions on liquids and the application of full-body scanners, which are particularly useful for the detection of non-metallic objects. In recent years, it has also become a trend for the security authorities to ask passengers to provide Advance Passenger Information (API) before they fly so that certain background pre-screening becomes possible. Even before the electronics ban rolled out, the security side of air travel had become yet more complicated, demanding even more input of time and energies from everyday passengers.
In the middle of March when I was traveling out of Israel from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport with the school group, we were stopped and the group leader interrogated for almost 45 minutes after the security agents heard that we had visited the West Bank and stayed in Palestinians’ homes. Having been well informed before I came, I was not at all surprised. Israel has seen PLO hijackers and their citizens have lost their lives. America has seen 9/11 and the people have mourned their losses. For these two countries, endeavors to enhance security have been made, and the results are relatively successful. But almost inevitably, concerns about or accusations of racial profiling and personal privacy infringement continue to raised. In a sense, as airport security grows to become more intelligence-based, we are all falling into the grand scheme of a “surveillance society” where the absolute guarantee of safety, if there is one, demands sacrifice of personal rights that many of us have long been enjoying before. Each air traveler is paying some price for the notorious history of terrorism to feel more safe and secure.
Click here for a short BBC video about the history of airport security.
Thanks and I will be back here next week with a discussion about the huge commercial conflict between three major U.S. carriers and Middle Eastern air carriers.