Whether it’s cause for celebration or regret, last month marked the 40th anniversary of the first U.S. airport-wide system to screen all departing passengers in an effort to prevent hijacking. On July 17, 1970, New Orleans International in Louisiana became the first airport to use magnetometers to detect weapons—or anything made of metal—together with behavioral profiling of passengers. For anyone flagged by the system, airline personnel formed the initial gauntlet, and U.S. Marshals Service staffers were called in to investigate unresolved questions.
The need for airport security systems had been gradually building from a more innocent time, when passengers and friends embraced at departure gates and families met loved ones as they stepped into the terminal. Except for isolated incidents involving explosives and insurance fraud, the first half-century of commercial air travel was comparatively tranquil. That changed on May 1, 1961, when a passenger on an airliner bound for Key West, Florida, forced the pilot to fly to a country that later became synonymous with hijacking: Cuba. Before the end of August, four more similar incidents occurred. No laws penalized such acts, and Congress hastened to criminalize “skyjacking,” the term the media coined for the practice.
In 1968, airlines started putting armed guards on flights, but it didn’t help much; that was an especially bad year, with 12 airliners and six private aircraft forced to detour to Havana. When eight airliners were hijacked to Cuba in the month of January 1969 alone, Florida became the air marshals’ most prominent posting, and a federal task force met to devise some kind of plan. Organized under the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Aviation Medicine, the group drew on experiences from all over the world to come up with a profile of behavior common to hijackers. By October, Eastern Air Lines, whose bread and butter was its Florida routes, used profiling, and had magnetometers in place, at some of its terminal operations. The year 1969 ended with a total of 87 hijackings worldwide, 40 of those in the United States.
Magnetometers, more commonly known as metal detectors, were rumored to be compromised when Glock, an Austrian maker of pistols, introduced an automatic with some plastic parts, but the gun was still
83 percent metal. To date, there has been no firearm manufactured that won’t trip the venerable metal detector, and every airport in the United States serviced by a scheduled airline has some means of ensuring that passengers are weapon-free. Some groups challenge the concept of identifying possible perpetrators by certain characteristics, saying that law enforcement officials should use only one criterion for suspicion or detention of an individual: reasonable cause.
The Israeli air security system was—and still is—the world standard. Israel may justify its approach by experience: In 1976, a Paris-bound Air France flight was hijacked from Athens, Greece, and flown to Entebbe, Uganda. Israel Defense Forces, on a night raid, freed 103 hostages and
lost five fellow citizens. One was Jonathan Netanyahu, commander of the raid and the older brother of Benjamin Netanyahu, the current prime minister. Compared to that, prevention seems preferable.
George C. Larson, Member, NAA