Crowd Control in Airports

Crowd control comes in many forms. From the subtle presence of museum security to the forceful presence of SWAT teams in full battle rattle, where there is a crowd there is control. Even without the numbers of people to employ in managing a crowd, there are multiple options to direct the flow of human traffic. One of the most complicated areas to direct human traffic is at the airport security check point. At every check point, TSA security staff work with a combination of stanchions and retractable belt barriers to keep travelers moving in an orderly fashion.

Our current system of airport security evolved over a long and complicated history and as a reaction to various incidents.

The Golden Age of Hijacking

In the period between 1968 and 1972, hijackers took over a commercial flight about once a week. At that time, travelers did not need to show photo identification. Airports relied on the discernment of ticket agents. If an agent saw a traveler displaying some kind of “suspicious behavior,” that person would be pulled aside for additional screening. X-ray machines and metal detectors were not mandated for all passengers until 1973.

Semi-professional Security

Until 2001, airports outsourced security to underpaid, often incompetent independent contractors. Before then, people could arrive for their flight as late as 30 minutes before take off, and family and friends could come with them all the way to the gate. All of this changed on September 11, 2001.

Shoes Off, Please

After 9/11, airport security fell into the hands of the more professional Transportation Security Administration (TSA.) The TSA continues to expand and refine security at all airports. The more controlled and managed lines we know now were implemented. Each traveler now must have both their identification and boarding document checked by an agent before going through to addition screening.

And, yes, in most cases, you have to take your shoes off as well.

Frequent travelers make a sport of complaining about the rigors of the TSA. Few of them would want to return to the times before 1973, however, when hijackings were much more common. The security lines might be a hassle, but the combination of human agents and logically arranged stanchions and barriers make the process more uniform around the country.

The next time you are in an airport, winding through the stanchion maze, perhaps contemplating a quick duck beneath a retractable belt barrier, remember how lax security used to be. That barrier, which seems like an obstacle, is actually part of a larger system of screening and protection that keeps air travel safe.

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