On September 11, 2001, 19 hijackers took control of four Boeing airplanes, two operated by American Airlines and two by United, and used them to carry out acts of terrorism that took the lives of nearly 3,000 people. Two of the jetliners crashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York City. Another crashed into the Pentagon, and the fourth aircraft crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
The September 11 attacks had profound economic impacts, especially on the aviation industry. Shake-ups in the major players in commercial aviation, in addition to new, intensified security procedures, completely changed the landscape of the industry. Today, many aspects of the air transport experience would be unrecognizable to travelers prior to September 11, 2001.
Unprecedented financial turmoil
The commercial aviation industry in the United States had weathered economic downturns and predictable dips in revenue associated with the seasonal nature of leisure travel but had not seen a crisis of the magnitude of the September 11 attacks. According to the International Air Transport Association, United States passenger airlines experienced a net loss of $8.0 billion in 2001, and revenues did not exceed 2000 figures until 2004.
Unfortunately, the industry’s rebound was short-lived. The 2008 onset of the Great Recession in the United States dealt another blow to commercial aviation. Severe financial turmoil led some of the largest airlines to file for bankruptcy, including Delta, Northwest, United, and US Airways. The fallout would result in winnowing down from several major carriers to just four.
The 2008 merger between Delta and Northwest Airlines was the first significant act of consolidation during this period. United and Continental’s merger followed in 2010, with Southwest and AirTran merging soon after in 2011. Finally, in 2013, American Airlines merged with US Airways. By 2018, American, United, Delta, and Southwest Airlines controlled 75 % of the American commercial air travel market.
Airlines identified new, sustainable revenue streams in the wake of the upheaval. Many began charging for meals and checked baggage and divided the economy cabin into subclasses that came with paid perks, such as priority boarding. They also added more seats to maximize revenue for each flight, resulting in a reduction in passenger comfort.
Overhaul of security procedures
There had been no material changes to airport security procedures between 1973 and 2001. Security was handled by private contractors who were hired by the airlines. Travelers passed through simple metal detectors, and there was minimal luggage examination. Passengers could get to the gate without showing a boarding pass or even identification.
But in November 2001, President George W. Bush signed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, establishing the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Passenger screening then became the purview of the federal government.
A slew of new security regulations were implemented in the following years. In response to an attempted shoe bombing in December 2001, passengers were required to remove their shoes so that they could be screened separately. No sharp objects were allowed in the cabin, including such items as nail files and pen knives. Basic metal detectors were eventually replaced by high-resolution, full-body scanners.
Beginning in March 2008, passengers could see TSA canine teams aiding the screening of baggage and even passengers in major airports throughout the United States. In December 2011, TSA introduced the Precheck program, which allowed vetted travelers to avoid the long security lines in exchange for a five-year membership fee of $85.
The effects of the tragic events of September 11, 2001, will likely forever define the air travel experience, both in the United States and around the globe, as governments aim to prevent acts of terrorism.