Airline Terrorism Before 9/11 and Today

Airline Terrorism Before 9/11 and Today

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This paper describes our nation and the worlds mindset about airline terrorism before 9/11 and airline terrorism today. This remains a very real and deadly subject even though we don’t have as many incidents occurring at this moment in time. Still the potential for countless lives being lost in an aircraft accident from the actions of a terrorist or terrorist organization is still very real and innocent families across this nation and abroad remain the targets. Additionally, it will show that the security measures in place at airports prior to 9/11 were far less adequate, than today, and personnel responsible for airport security at the gates and throughout were either poorly trained or not trained at all when it came to hijackers and terrorist. This paper will also identify the extensive security measures, rules and training that have been put into place, which helped to curtail acts of terrorism onboard airliners.


Whether we would like to admit it or not there was a time, prior to September 11, 2001 when airline terrorism was a very real danger and it seemed as thought we averaged a hijacking or terrorist event every thirty days somewhere in the world. Gladly this wasn’t the case, in an online article I read there was a interview held with a person who spoke to my thoughts, he said “One example was a study I conducted on media coverage by the New York Times during a 17 -year, pre-9/11 period of 1978 to 1994. Among other things, I found that fatal airline events that involved jet aircraft that were hijacked, sabotaged, or destroyed by military action, which represented about 8% of the fatal airline accidents reported by the Times during that period, accounted for about 48% of all the airline accident articles in that period“ (T. Curtis, personal interview, September 11, 2009). Back then, it was easy to visualize a small suitcase being carried aboard an aircraft with a explosive inside, capable of ending the lives of everyone onboard men, women, and children; with no regard to age, sex, and religion.
The media coverage seemed to focus on the individual hijacker because somehow it seemed as though we knew who he was and where he came from. Sometimes it seemed as though we knew why and most cases we did because that was their plan; they wanted the attention so they can give their list of demands.

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These demands seem to center around being flown to some other country for asylum then passengers and the aircraft will be free to leave unharmed. When these demands were not met people died and in a single moment families are torn apart as their loved ones become victims of terrorism.
As I recall, even though these acts of terrorism called “hijacking” seem to occur quite frequently; with the outcome more positive then negative, people still seemed to be more worried about airline prices continuing to rise then anything else because the amount of airplane travelers increased at phenomenal rates. At this point in my paper was thinking; could this be because there were no major terrorist groups or factions like Alqaida claiming or supporting the individual act. I now believe this was the case back then. So, the airports and airline industry remained active as passengers continued to book flights as if the threat didn’t exist. Sadly, the time has now come for one to consider if we, the passengers should be relaxing at all when onboard any aircraft.
During this time, it was estimated that over a half billion passengers rushed through terminals each year completely naïve of bad our airline, security, scanning and inspection techniques were. In numerous scheduled and unscheduled security test, government employees had successfully passed through metal detectors armed with knives, guns, and even a discharged hand grenade. In England, Europe and elsewhere in the world, airline personnel were though to have been more expertly trained and receive higher pay. The issue of sabotage and criminal attacks on aircraft then and now is one that is horrifying to contemplate. However, the potential remains ever present today, as it did back then and cannot be swept under some political rug. The statistics provided by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) during that time period were gruesome and the results of accidents more gruesome.

Then, the big two; I remember when the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland occurred, and I remember the December 21, 1988 similar bombing on an Air India flight in June, 1985, these two incidents were etched in my mind and our country’s memories. When I think about the airline industry’s mindset back then; I find myself wondering if America and the world would have made it a priority to keep its consumers and the public informed about the approximate number of airline passengers who had been killed in the previous ten years due to terrorist bombs attacks on civilian aircraft which totaled 1,000. Maybe changes to airline security measures would have been taken more seriously and future incidents could have been avoided. Makes me wonder. Hum! Once again, our government is well aware of the problems, but decides to act after the fact, sounds familiar doesn’t it; all the warnings that preceded these massacre’s were given to them by the safety experts whose jobs were to do just that. The evidence was there, and one only had to look at the legislation passed and in effect which allowed these occurrences to happen. There are far to many terrorist groups and lone wolf’s in the world willing to do the unimaginable in order to make a statement or make history.
In a book published by then-known consumer activist Ralph Nader named Collision Course, he provided consumer’s a thorough examination of airline safety by publishing quotes given by numerous airline industry employees who voiced their needs for improved safety, terrorism and counter terrorism measures. What’s so frightening about this book was that some of the quotes revealed came from highly respected officials involved in the slow process of instituting new laws to protect travelers by increasing safety regulations and inspection procedures. These new regulations and inspection procedures were thought to significantly reduce the possibility of such atrocities occurring from aircraft bombings. Ideally, the use of stringent security checks should prevent any bombs from being smuggled on board aircraft and information about these measures coming to fruition had already been known. It required passengers having to be matched to their luggage by photo identification prior to departure here in the United States. Secondly, there was much talk by airline security specialist about the modification of aircraft cargo and baggage holds. While I agree, matching passengers to their luggage and modifying cargo holds make sense and may save lives, one can clearly see there was no focus on trying to act on the root of the problem, are these hijackings and terrorist attacks a prelude to something larger?
Taylor and Steedman (2003) explained that “Prior to September 11, 2001 there were a number of areas that needed to be addressed with regards to airline security. One of these areas pertained to those hired by the airlines to act as security screeners. They were often unable to detect possible threats found on passengers and/or on their luggage. These threats include weapons such as cutting devices, guns, bombs, and airborne pathogens. The failure to detect these devices were a result of constant turnover in the workplace coupled with poor training due to unattractive wages and benefits which resulted in the hiring of an unskilled, inexperienced labor force (Dillingham, 2003). According to Gerald L. Dillingham, Director of Civil Aviation Issues, "turnover rates exceeded 100 percent a year at most large airports”( p. 6).

No, the focus continued to be on making the industry more safe for travel, not losing consumer confidence. I could truly understand how the airline industry could mistakenly overlook implementing more aggressive rules, regulations and guidelines to help deter terrorism onboard it’s aircraft, the acts were random and good and bad outcomes with passenger and aircraft survival led them to believe such drastic measures may not be needed. The effects on consumer travel and their bottom line would have been far to negative. I have a problem, with the actions of our congress and our intelligence services seemingly non-existent, but that would all change.
The events that took place on September 11, 2001 had a profound impact on airline travel and aviation safety in ways no one could ever imagine. The aftermath of that fateful led our government to create the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Their first job was to take over airport and airline security from the many third party contractors being used throughout our nations airports. Other changes were implemented on aircraft that included reinforcing cockpit doors. The implementation of the TSA seem to be a effective deterrent here at home but abroad things weren’t so safe. An American Airlines flight leaving from Europe carried a passenger named Richard Reid who attempted to ignite explosives in his shoe. He failed because his sweaty feet dampened fuse too much for it to ignite.
He was found to have had 10 ounces of explosive materials in the sole of his shoes and had he succeeded, the blast would have probable killed everyone on the aircraft. So, shoe inspections were added to the list of TSA inspections. In August of 2006 24 people were arrested by British airport security officers for planning to blow up a US bound aircraft with liquid bombs. The “TATP” based explosives were found to be impossible to detect with our current technology so a ban on liquids in carry-on luggage was implemented within hours. As, I continued on reading and listing these events, I could only think of the how the mindset was back then, prior to 9/11 when the emphasis by the airline industry was money driven. Anyway, continuing on: On Christmas Day 2009 a 23 year old Nigerian boarded a Northwest Airline flight with the intentions blowing up the flight using a pouch strapped to his legs filled with 80 grams of several explosive chemicals. He tried to detonate the homemade bomb but it failed.
This failed bombing attempt was the beginning of the demand for better security scanning technologies and equipment. Most recently an aviation terror attempt happened on October 29, 2010, two modified bombs were shipped inside laser printers as cargo bound to the United States from Yemen. Through the use of quick and actionable intelligence, the printers were intercepted before they were loaded on the intended planes. It was told that the bombs were so well hidden that it took British police hours to locate them inside the cartridges. If these bombs would have made their destination on the planes they could have exploded over the United States and its major cities, scattering burning pieces over a vastly populated area. Since the attempts in 2006 it was widely known airport and freight systems were not equipped to detect anything other than metal and some other objects with X-ray machines, at this time new body - scanning technology was rushed in. These machines were known to have been installed in Amsterdam’s airport first followed by several locations in the United States. After the crotch bombing incident in 2009, the United States government accelerated the implementation of these units to more airports. In February 2011, it is reported that over 81 US airports and 18 international airports have them and airline traveler’s have no problem voicing their negative opinion about them. Most concerns deal with the process being slow and need to arrive at the airport 2-3 hours prior to departure due to the extensive baggage checks and personal screenings, the major issue dealing with privacy and health concerns surrounding the new body scanning machines are not slowing down the governments use of them. The TSA is trying to improve passenger privacy, by implementing new software to show less of the person being scanned by the machine. This new software is suppose to detect potential threats without showing the actual body scan.
In closing, I believe, despite all of the overwhelming negative stories about whole-body scanners and airport pat-downs, the airline industry I grew up knowing, has a far better mindset than it had prior to 9/11. Since, I have been involved in this terrorism class, I have acquired far better knowledge and more respect for what is really going, all the agencies involved in making sure airline industry consumers board a safe flight here and around the world. The public only needs to open a book or read an article on Homeland Security or the Transportation Security Agency. We need to bombard the public with more positive news when possible, there is more to our security than only operations at airports. Intelligence operations are going on every day in thousands of police stations, and during patrols through our city streets. The security industrial complex since 9/11 is vast and has grown in the name of protecting us through it’s use of camera surveillance and a web of Fusion Centers that coordinate threat data using linked-analysis and other technological devices like license plate readers.
So, I take my hat off to the men and women dedicated to making airline travel more safer but I also understand; that even with all of this surveillance and airport security, it is and will be the observant citizens that have prevented the most recent terrorist efforts. Yes, including some of those people barely making minimum wage. High-tech security has had nothing to do with foiling some of these most recent attempts. These high-tech systems have only been able to provide evidence and trace the terrorist steps, not their intended actions. I truly hope one day people understand that their right to travel may depend upon they giving up their right to privacy. The threat is real, and could possibly get worse.

The news, personal interview

Dillingham, G. L., (2003, September 9). Aviation security: progress since September 11, 2001, and the challenges ahead. (1-46

Taylor, A. B. & Steedman, S. (2003), The Evolution of Airline Terrorism Since 9/11, Retrieved 2012 June 12, from:
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