A brief history of airline security, hijackings and metal detectors

Between May 1961 and the end of 1972, there were 159 aircraft hijackings[1] in United States airspace. This time period is often referred to as the golden age of airline hijacking. According to Brendan Koerner, author of the 2013 book The Skies Belong to Us, the majority of those “were between ’68 and ’72, a five-year stretch, and sometimes they happened at the rate of one per week.” Koener also stated that, “You could have multiple hijackings in the same day—it was not an infrequent occurrence.”

Shortly after the Cuban Revolution in 1959, hijackers began demanding that the pilots of captured planes fly to Cuba, a mere 1,518 miles off the coast of the United States. Most hijackers believed that they would be welcomed as revolutionary heroes, escape punishment from the U.S. government, and receive protection from the newly elevated ruler Fidel Castro.

The request became so frequent that “Take me to Cuba!” was featured in a famous sketch by none other than Monty Python. Castro, eyeing an opportunity to humiliate the U.S. government, often offered to return[2] the planes to the airlines for a meager $7,500.

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Addressing airport and airplane security

Something had to be done. The U.S. government decided that it needed a solution to this increasingly frequent problem. Some of its ideas, however, missed the mark. One such idea was to build a pretend version of the Havana airport in South Florida so that hijacked planes would land there instead. This may have been scrapped due to cost, the obvious directional indicators available on the aircraft and, well, windows.

Another more successful plan borrowed an idea from the U.S. military and prison system. This idea was to use metal detectors or X-ray machines to screen all passengers, and was first suggested by Senator George Smathers[3] of Florida at a July 1968 Senate hearing. Smathers noted that these relatively new technologies were already in place at several maximum-security prisons and sensitive military facilities, where they were performing admirably. “I see no reason why similar devices couldn’t be installed at airport check-in gates to determine whether passengers are carrying guns or other weapons just prior to emplaning,” Smathers said.

Federal Aviation Administration[4] (FAA) staffer Irving Ripp dismissed the suggestion as he was certain it would have “a bad psychological effect on passengers . . . It would scare the pants off people. Plus people would complain about invasion of privacy.” None of the senators made any further inquiries about electronic screening.

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In an effort to reduce the financial impact of hijackings, airlines decided that their top priority was to avoid violence—and the associated bad publicity. Every airline adopted a policy of absolute compliance with all hijacker demands. Additionally, to make trips to Cuba more streamlined, all cockpits were outfitted with charts of the Caribbean, regardless of destination. The objective was to make hijacking as quick and painless as possible whilst reducing harm and bad press. The result, however, was anything but. During the first six weeks of 1969, there were eleven hijackings.

The FAA then decided to turn to an unconventional idea—profiling[5]. At the behest of John Dailey[6], the FAA’s chief psychologist, it began profiling passengers based on characteristics such as height, failure to maintain eye contact, or an inadequate level of knowledge or concerns about one’s luggage. When an individual was judged to fit the behavioral profile, they were escorted to a private screening room and given a once-over with a U-shaped metal detector.

The short-term results showed that profiling only selected 1,268 out of 226,000 passengers with only 24 being arrested on weapons or narcotics charges. The airlines voluntarily rolled out the profiling program in November 1969. More important, selectees rarely seemed to mind the extra scrutiny; when interviewed afterward, most said they were just happy to know that something was finally being done to prevent hijackings. Over time, however, the agent’s attention to detail waned and profiling, as the sole source of security, failed with it.

Passenger screening and inspection systems

A better solution was needed. In fact, it was thought that a technological solution may reduce the overall complacency experienced by profiling alone. Returning to the ideas of Senator Smathers, the metal detector and X-ray machine option resurfaced. On July 17, 1970, New Orleans International Airport in Louisiana became the first airport[7] to use magnetometers to detect weapons—or anything made of metal—together with behavioral profiling of passengers. For anyone flagged by the system, airline personnel formed the initial gauntlet, and U.S. Marshals Service staffers were called in to investigate unresolved questions.

Starting January 5, 1973, the FAA instituted universal physical screening of passengers, and everyone had to pass through metal detectors and have their bags searched. In 1974[8], the Air Transportation Security Act sanctioned the FAA’s universal screening rule, forcing U.S. airports to adopt metal-detection screening portals for passengers and X-ray inspection systems for carry-on bags.

The implementation of walk-through metal detectors and the scanning of luggage have made hijacking an aircraft a much higher-risk proposition than it was 50 years ago. Security measures have significantly reduced the number of hijackings but have not eliminated the risk completely—as evident by the hijackings on 9/11, American Airlines Flight 63[9] from Paris to Miami, and Tianjin Airlines flight 7554[10]. What we did see, however, was a dramatic drop in the number of hijackings as compared with when the airlines relied solely on profiling and human agent discretion.

The progression of airline security screening serves as an excellent historical example of the implementation of a technical security control as a reaction to a widespread and credible threat. In response to mass hijackings, a delicate balance between security and usability was struck to help ensure a safe yet expedient travel experience. Airlines, in concert with government agencies, performed a detailed risk analysis and implemented security measures deemed “adequate enough” so as not to dissuade passengers from continuing to fly. The airlines and government agencies could have simply continued operating with as little disruption as possible to passengers. That decision, as we saw play out for a short time during the first six weeks of 1969, could have endangered numerous lives and may have resulted in additional millions of dollars in ransom payments to an unfriendly nation.

Ultimately, this delicate balance and decision to implement a security control to mitigate a threat may fall short of public expectations or desires. It may, however, also be the best balance of security and usability that the industry can deliver with available technology.

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Andrew Hay is founder and CEO of Rising Cyber LLC, a leading cybersecurity organization. He is not an IBM employee and his views are his own.

[1] https://www.vox.com/2016/3/29/11326472/hijacking-airplanes-egyptair

[2] https://www.wired.com/2013/06/love-and-terror-in-the-golden-age-of-hijacking/

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Smathers

[4] https://www.faa.gov/

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Offender_profiling

[6] http://www.legacy.com/memorial-sites/air-force/obituary.aspx?n=John-T-Dailey&pid=100776577&ua=7%2Fa8W5ZslLrcMfHVtl%2ByEQ%3D%3D

[7] https://www.airspacemag.com/history-of-flight/moments-and-milestones-perfecting-the-people-filter-1490080/

[8] https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2011-jun-12-la-tr-airline-safety-timeline-20110612-story.html

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2001_failed_shoe_bomb_attempt

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tianjin_Airlines_Flight_7554