We are still living with the consequences of 9/11- IATA boss
On September 11, 2001, the world changed forever. Those of us old enough to understand what was happening at the time still remember where we were when we heard the horrific news.
Indeed, for many, it probably still feels like yesterday. At a time when the world’s attention is focused on emerging from COVID-19 and the devastation it has caused, commemorating the tragic events of 9.11 is crucially important.
We must continue to give the families and loved ones of the victims, and the victims themselves, the recognition and acknowledgement they deserve, while drawing inspiration from the heroes that day, the first responders who made the ultimate sacrifice and the passengers and crew of United Airlines flight 93 who disrupted the final attack with little hope for their own survival.
The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were not only assaults on the United States of America, they also were aimed at the global air transportation system—a facilitator of peace and freedom.
Two decades later, we are still living with their consequences, including a vastly expanded security and intelligence apparatus that overlays air travel. This is most visible at airport security checkpoints, although arguably the most intrusive post-9.11 changes—removing shoes at checkpoints, taking laptops and liquids out of carry-on bags and strict limits on liquids and gels in carry-on bags—are the result of subsequent, compounding terrorist plots against civil aviation.
From an economic perspective, 9.11 unleashed a tidal wave of financial devastation on the industry. US airlines bore the brunt of this in the immediate aftermath, but the aftershocks and then the 2003 SARS outbreak, combined with the renewed concerns over terrorism during and after the US-led invasion of Iraq that year,
extended the crisis for many airlines. After a few years of recovery, the Global Financial Crisis arrived in 2008-09 to wreak further havoc.
Of course, the damage done by both these crises is but a drop in the bucket compared to the impact of COVID19. Government-enacted border closures and travel restrictions in attempts to slow the spread of the disease, brought the industry to a near standstill in April 2020. And 18 months later, international traffic remains at a quarter of pre-crisis levels. As we look back on these previous crises, what have we learned?
An important lesson is to move beyond the one-size-fits-all, rules-based model that still, with some notable exceptions, such as TSA Pre-check, governs passenger security screening. We also learned that efficiency is improved by establishing trust with a known community of travelers and by applying security measures based on the low risk presented by the majority of travelers. And a further lesson is to establish firm deadlines at which these extraordinary measures expire and require regulators to take formal action to extend them. This ensures that what we are doing is relevant.
There are some timely parallels in these lessons to the challenges aviation faces today with COVID-19. Translated to the current environment this could mean things such as exempting vaccinated travelers from testing and quarantine requirements, and opening borders based on risk measurements.
If the risk of transmission is higher in Country A than in Country B, there is really no reason for Country A to bar vaccinated travelers from Country B from visiting. And we must make sure that the COVID-19 measures are in place no longer than they are necessary.
The story of the next 20 years ought to be about governments’ and industry’s ability to share and respond to new risks that are inherently integrated by nature or design. Sadly, that lesson has not been learned in terms of governments’ response to COVID-19 and the way health measures are being imposed upon civil aviation without considered consultation.
Significant Security Changes since 9/11
Locked and armored Cockpit Doors: Following 9.11 regulators directed all airlines to retrofit their fleets with locked and fortified cockpit doors. In addition, all new aircraft were required to be delivered with locked and armored cockpit doors.
Restrictions were placed on the carriage of sharp objects in the cabin that had previously been allowed. Pen knives, box cutters, nail files and other pointy items previously permissible were now banned and collected at checkpoints.
In the US, passenger screening was federalized, with airport screening provided by the newly-created Transportation Security Administration (TSA). 100% explosive detection screening for checked bags introduced in the US and elsewhere and applicable by ICAO Chicago Convention, Annex 17 in 2006. Additionally, Annex 17 since 2018, has applicable explosive detection requirements for passengers and cabin baggage as well.
As a result of the December 2001 “shoe-bomber plot” shoes were required to be removed and screened separately. Similar measures were introduced in many countries, but the rules were not harmonized. Some states banned cigarette lighters and matches in aircraft cabins.
As a result of the discovery of the August 2006 Transatlantic Bomb Plot, passengers were first banned from carrying gels and liquids in their cabin baggage. Subsequently, rules were adopted to allow passengers to carry liquids and gels in a 100 ml (3.4 oz) container and all liquids needed to fit into a transparent plastic bag (1 liter/1 quart size).
All laptops and other electronic equipment had to be removed from bags and scanned separately. In addition the UK imposed a restriction of one piece of hand luggage per person, which remained in place until January 2008.
The “Underwear bomber” attempted to detonate an improvised explosive device concealed in his underwear in December 2009. This led to widespread introduction of controversial “full body scanners” at airport security checkpoints.
In November 2010 an attempt to ship explosives concealed in printer cartridges aboard two cargo aircraft was discovered. Air cargo shipments to the United States from Yemen were suspended indefinitely. Passengers were prohibited from having printer cartridges in carry-on baggage.
The TSA Precheck known traveler program was introduced in 2011 in the US. In October 2015, the destruction of a Metrojet passenger flight enroute from Sharm El Sheikh to St. Petersburg, led to a new focus and international standards on insider threats.
In March 2017, responding to intelligence, the US banned electronic devices larger than a cell phone from the passenger cabins of US-bound commercial flights from ten airports in the Middle East and North Africa. In June, the US introduced enhanced screening of electronic devices, more thorough passenger vetting, and new measures designed to mitigate the potential threat of insider attacks.
In July 2017, there was a hold baggage security plot to blow up a Middle East destined aircraft. This event spawned the evolution of chemical and powders-based cabin baggage checks that remain in place today.
Willie Walsh is the Director General, International Air Transport Association (IATA)