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How The September 11th Attacks Changed Air Travel Forever

Twenty years ago, you could arrive at an airport at the last minute, walk with your family and friends to the gate, kiss them goodbye and start your journey. Travel was relatively relaxed, security checks were less rigorous, there was no need to take off shoes, belts, and jackets. There were also much fewer restrictions on the things you could take on planes. It was generally an all-round stress-free experience.

But that all changed on September 11th, 2001, when four hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Centre towers, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania, killing nearly 3,000 people. The worst terror attack in American history changed the entire industry, not just in America but throughout the world: from airport security to air hostess training, to the air travel market itself.

Planes sit on the tarmac at Los Angeles International Airport, which is closed following the attacks on New York and Washington DC, September 11, 2001.

A Shock to the Market

The initial shock and panic of the incident meant that all commercial flights were grounded for 7 days. In 2001 alone U.S. airlines lost $8 billion, and it took two years for global passenger traffic to recover. It was only in 2006 that the industry become profitable again. The layoffs in the wake 9/11 were in the tens of thousands and workers faced massive pay cuts. Only the Covid pandemic has threatened more jobs, but the $54 billion federal bailout prevented this from becoming a reality.

The economic fallout of 9/11 triggered a wave of bankruptcies, leaving four commercial airlines - American, United, Delta Air Lines and Southwest airlines - in control of roughly three-quaters of U.S. commercial air travel market by 2018. Perhaps unexepectedly, however, almost immediately following the attacks there was a sudden increase in the number of airline passengers, with figures remaining above 2001 levels until March 2020 and the beginning to the pandemic.

US passenger numbers dipped after the 9/11 terror attacks but recovered very quickly afterwards

Security overhaul

Prior to Sept. 11 airport security was done through private contractors and the protocol varied greatly from airport to airport. Two months after the attacks, President George W. Bush signed a new security act creating the Transportation Security Administration, which brought into force federal airport screeners to replace the private security firms. The legislation also required all hold luggage to be screened, cockpit doors to be reinforced, and more federal air marshals put on flights.

While a hijacking hasn’t occurred in the U.S. since 9/11, security threats have changed and so have screening and security procedures. Attempted attacks, like the 2001 ‘shoe bomber’ have meant that passengers are required to remove their shoes at checkpoints. Larger containers of liquid are also not allowed in cabin baggage after UK officials stopped a terror plot to bring liquid explosives on flights in 2006.

To combat the long queues travellers can opt to pay for pre-screening services like TSA’s PreCheck, where the individual undergoes a background check and can bypass some of the checkpoint screening procedures. All these precautions have prevented another 9/11 and any other terror attacks but have changed the way we travel for ever.

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