9/11 and how it impacted travel 20 years later
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On September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda hijacked four planes and crashed into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania in the US. Around 3 000 people died and thousands more were injured.
Dubbed among the “most lethal terrorist attacks in history”, 9/11 changed the travel landscape forever, and for some, not in a good way.
Sean O’Keefe, a professor at Syracuse University, told CNN that the incident “flipped the switch right away from almost non-existent security to unbelievable, in-your-face, all the time (security)”.
Fears of similar attacks prompted then US president George W Bush to sign the Aviation and Transportation Security Act in November 2001, which introduced the Transportation Security Administration.
The seamless boarding procedures coupled with the allure of air travel slowly faded after 9/11. Instead of hugging loved ones goodbye at the departure gate before they boarded their flight, travellers had to undergo stringent, and often time-consuming, screening procedures.
Soon, most governments followed suit, adding a few tweaks to their own security policies.
Dr Petrus de Kock, an independent South African analyst who worked as a lecturer in Detroit at the time of the incident, remembered the events of 9/11 vividly.
“It (9/11) changed the world fundamentally. It drew attention to the vulnerability of the airport systems, planes and infrastructure. The industry is now aware of hidden risks. In the last two decades, it has made the airport experience safer and people more vigilant, especially about terrorism and other acts that could potentially take place at an airport or on a plane. Most of all, it led to innovation.”
De Kock said that as the terrorism phenomenon expanded, so did security interventions in the global aviation space.
Willie Walsh, the director general of the International Air Transport Association (Iata), believes the industry is more secure today than in the past.
“Advances such as locked and armoured cockpit doors, explosives detection screening of baggage and other less visible steps have certainly made aviation more secure. Through the International Civil Aviation Organisation, the baseline of security measures required of states has significantly progressed.
“We also see much stronger political will by some key governments to help raise the bar globally, including helping to fund other countries to enable them to meet their security obligations,” he said.
Not all rainbows and smiles
While the aviation industry made strides to keep travellers safe, new regulations offered many challenges for air passengers.
Linden Birns, the managing director of Plane Talking, said the plethora of inconsistent and often confusing security measures put in place after of 9/11 initially deterred people from travelling by air.
“People were uncomfortable at the prospect of having their personal belongings interfered with, items confiscated, being denied boarding, being delayed by lengthy and laborious security procedures – many of which made no obvious sense – and missing flights.
“The additional check-in and security procedures meant passengers had to be at airports three hours before their departure, which caused an additional hassle,” he said.
Birns advised that there should be no confusion and inconsistencies surrounding global air regulations.
“Iata, the World Health Organization and the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation have been lobbying governments to adopt a harmonised single standard and measures that will enable them to safely reopen their borders and markets for travel during the pandemic,” he said.
De Kock said racial profiling incidents had soared, too.
“Many travellers who are considered ‘suspicious looking’ are often pulled aside for questioning, and these types of incidents only increased after 9/11. In some cases, these travellers miss or are not allowed to board their flight,” he said.
De Kock encountered similar experiences when he travelled from the US to South Africa.
“I would get called in for questioning because I had a slightly darker skin colour. I spent hours answering questions, which is a very daunting and stressful process.”
De Kock added that the visa process, especially in Western Europe and the US, became more stringent, making it difficult for people to travel to some places.
Walsh advised how the sector could deal with the travel hassles.
“Next-gen screening technology that could remove some of the checkpoints hassles certainly exists. However, in the current financial environment, it’s difficult to see significant investments happening.
“What is missing and could be addressed now is the required policy adjustments to allow new levels of trusted traveller concepts and predictive risk screening.
“Two decades after 9/11, it’s only the US and Canada that have introduced trusted-traveller programmes focused on security as opposed to border facilitation,” he said.