Air travel changed dramatically 20 years ago, as anyone who flew before then will nostalgically tell you. We remember going to the gate with departing family members, waving them off as they disappeared into the plane itself. Security screenings existed in larger airports, but they involved little more than x-ray machines and the rare pat-down. Instead of TSA agents, security stations were manned by private security companies of varying efficiency.

Even though the planes used in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were far from the first hijacked passenger jets in the U.S., the massive scale of death, damage, and international furor that resulted changed air travel. At the time, the optimistic thought those changes would be temporary, but it’s now been two decades.

In the first years after 9/11, new security measures kept popping up. First, it was tighter screening, with more items restricted from being carried into the passenger cabins. Nail clippers were banned for a while, and safety razors still are.

Then the “shoe bomber” event happened on a Paris to Miami flight, just three months after 9/11, and since then we’ve taken our shoes off in long shuffling lines. In 2006, three men were caught planning to smuggle liquid bombs aboard half a dozen flights, and we started throwing out our water bottles, incautiously packed shampoos, and optimistically purchased bottles of wine at the security check.

In the last ten years, a few “trusted traveler programs” have popped up, presenting opportunities for people to pay to go through shorter lines and lighter security. For many, this is proof that the usual precautions are nothing but “security theatre,” an expensive and obstructive pantomime to make people feel that something is being done to keep them safe. Others are sure that the trusted traveler programs are closeted and invasive data mining.

Whether or not you believe the current security measures are necessary, useful, or actively harmful, they’re a fact of travel now.

Image: Simone Hogan /