20 Years After 9/11, Has the TSA Done Its Job?

It’s almost hard to believe that September 11 is the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the U.S., a day of horror so vivid in all our minds that it seems like yesterday.

Much has changed in our world since that day, especially when it comes to how we travel and particularly with airline travel. Perhaps the most dramatic change was the formation of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).


A federal agency created out of tragedy – and up and running barely two months after the attacks in November of 2001 – the TSA basically nationalized airport security.

And the agency has had its successes and failures in the 20 years since, with a legacy of mandates that last until this day – long lines, shoes and belts off, soon-to-be enhanced ID and more.

But to know where we are now is to remember where we once were with airline travel.

As problematic as long lines might be it nonetheless pales in comparison, from a security standpoint, to what many of us remember the airport experience being like.

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It’s almost shocking now to think about how lax security was prior to the 9/11 attacks. Remember the old commercials with O.J. Simpson sprinting through an airport to catch a flight after dropping off his rental car? Yeah, well, that wasn’t dramatic license.

There was a time when you could park your car at 11:45 a.m., check in, flash your boarding pass at security and make a mad dash to the gate to still catch a noon flight.

There was a time when you could book a flight in your name and transfer the ticket to somebody else.

Getting into an airport? You probably had a tougher time getting into a bar under age 21 with a fake ID.

Airport security was always a reaction to an action. For those of you old enough to remember, there was a spate of hijackings in the 1960s and ‘70s – Cuba always seemed to be the preferred destination – that led to the 1973 decision to put metal detectors at airports.

But, again, just to point out the vast differences between then and now, anybody could go through the metal detectors and into the depths of an airport. Family and friends could accompany you, or pick you up, right at the gate right up until Sept. 11, 2001.

And it was good for the airports. Instead of one person going through security, there were several – and the hope was that those family and friends seeing off the ticket-holder would all stop for a couple of beers along the way or, even better, they all would sit down to dinner at an airport restaurant before the flight.

All that changed in the wake of the attacks – in a hurry.

When the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) allowed the airlines to start flying again on September 14, 2001, three days after the attacks, the changes were already apparent. At airports and train stations, armed personnel from the National Guard were mobilized in every state and patrolled the facilities.

The TSA adapted as situations arose, notably in December of 2001 when Richard Reid attempted to ignite explosives hidden in his sneakers on a flight from Paris to Miami. That led to taking off your shoes before going through security.

Five years later, British intelligence uncovered a plot to blow up a plane using liquid explosives. That led to bringing no more than 3.4 ounces of any liquid through security.

But the TSA, now 50,000 agents strong nationwide, has faced plenty of criticism, including from Congress, and much of it brought on by itself.

Six years ago, an undercover sting by the Department of Homeland Security revealed that in 70 different instances at seven major airports, TSA agents failed to find fake explosives and weapons – including one strapped to the back of one of the undercover investigators – a whopping 67 times.

A federal watchdog group decided to follow up on that undercover investigation by doing the same thing at eight airports three months after the initial operation. Then-Homeland Security Inspector General John Roth testified that nothing has changed since earlier that year.

“In September 2015, we completed and distributed our report on our most recent round of covert testing. … While I cannot talk about the specifics in this setting, I am able to say that we conducted the audit with sufficient rigor to satisfy the standards contained within the Generally Accepted Government Auditing Standards, that the tests were conducted by auditors within our Office of Audits without any special knowledge or training, and that the test results were disappointing and troubling.”

Roth said it was designed to test the TSA system as a whole. What he found was shocking.

“The failures included failures in the technology, failures in TSA procedures, and human error,” he said. “We found layers of security simply missing. It would be misleading to minimize the rigor of our testing, or to imply that our testing was not an accurate reflection of the effectiveness of the totality of aviation security.”

So in 20 years, the legacy of the Transportation Security Administration is complex, to say the least. It is certainly the single biggest change in travel since the attacks.

Whether it’s all positive change remains to be seen.