Being asked whether you have packed check-in bags yourself and if someone had access to them afterwards, to taking off belts off and removing anything remotely suspicious from cabin bags, are only the visible tip-of-iceberg changes that passengers experience.
Subsequent security scares continued to add to the checks and restrictions. Flyers were asked to take off shoes at security checks after “shoe bomber” Richard Reid tried to target a Miami-Paris flight in late 2001. Restrictions on the quantity of liquids and gels being taken onboard came in 2006 after the UK uncovered a plot to blow up flights from London Heathrow to the US. Full body scanners began being introduced at airports after the “underwear bomber” attempted to detonate an improvised explosive device concealed in his underwear in December 2009.
The 9/11-induced changes, in fact, begin from right when you apply for a US visa in your home country and continue till the immigration officer quizzing you on arrival there.
Pre-travel: “Documentation for US visas became way more elaborate after 9/11 in terms of seeking information. Passenger profiling has increased. Advance passenger information system was introduced since then under which complete details of all passengers headed to the US are sent the moment after check in closes. This list is examined closely as the plane heads to the US and then suspicious arrivals are quizzed in detail on arrival,” said top airline officials.
At departure airport: After 9/11, the US made it mandatory for airlines to frisk passengers yet again at the boarding gate and then make them sit in an enclosed area where they don’t come into contact with passengers headed for other destinations.
Also, passengers and baggage need to be completely checked at the port of departure for US. This meant that till Air India got its first Boeing 777 in 2007 (which fly direct to and from North America) and operated one-stops to the US like Delhi/Mumbai-London-New York and Delhi-Frankfurt-Los Angeles, everyone and every bag on board got off at the stopover for checks.
Inflight: Cockpit doors got armoured locks and cameras. Pilots are required to see who is knocking to enter the flight deck before unlocking. Access to jump seats (extra seats behind pilots’ seats) was restricted to a very select few. “Crew watches passenger behaviour very closely and alerts for anything/anyone suspicious,” said an airline official.
On arrival: “What is the purpose of your visit and how long do you plan to stay here?” The tone in which this question is asked at immigration unnerves even seasoned travellers.
In terms of impact on travel, Covid has been 9/11 deja vu. From 2001 to 2019, it was the terror of terror. From 2020, the fear of Coronavirus leading to being masked up, sanitising hands frequently and social distancing became the new norm.
“We used to heave a sigh of relief only on exiting the airport on arrival in America. These two together have taken the fun out of travel completely,” said Ram, 17, who gets envious when hearing about the carefree pre-9/11 travel tales of his elders while cherishing his own pre-Covid travel memories.