Twenty years of abnormal flights

9/11 commemoration

Security is seen during a 9/11 commemoration at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania on September 11, 2021.

Photo credit: Mandel Ngan | AFP

What you need to know:

  • Before 9/11, airports in many cities were more like shopping malls that were open to anyone, and going to the airport was a fun experience.

If you started flying after September 2001, you missed out on an experience.

This weekend marks the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 (9/11) attacks, when terrorists hijacked four aircraft to crash them into landmark American buildings.

It was a day that changed the aviation industry forever. People who grew up and started flying in the last 20 years may not know that the requirements of several security checks, removing shoes and not carrying liquids through airports and onto planes may still seem abnormal for those who had flown before 9/11.

Before 9/11, airports in many cities were more like shopping malls that were open to anyone, and going to the airport was a fun experience.

Airports had exclusive clothing shops and fancy restaurants that were not found in towns. Some had museums and other attractions like tours of different airport operations.

It was also a big deal for people to escort and receive all kinds of passengers, not just those going on major international trips such as university studies.

In some airports, you could walk up to or wait to receive someone right at the gate of their aircraft. This would also happen at the JKIA in Nairobi if the person were a VIP or if you knew someone who worked in the airport.

9/11 happened just before the cell phone era so if someone was transiting through an airport in your city, you could arrange to see them when they landed at the airport, have a meeting or dine with them and then go home as they continued to the next flight. 

Most airports had one security checkpoint and airlines were responsible for security, a service which they subcontracted at a cost. You could arrive at the airport one hour ahead for an international flight and not be late.

There was a level of trust and boarding passes were often not checked unless two people had a dispute over a seat. People sometimes boarded the wrong plane, like in the movie Home Alone 2.

During a flight, you could request to visit the cockpit to chat with the pilots as they steered the aircraft over the clouds. Pilots would also walk into the cabin on a long flight to greet their VIPs or reassure anxious passengers and stretch their legs.

What happened

There were two other notable plane passenger incidents in 2001.

On New Year's morning, a Kenyan man rushed into the cockpit of a British Airways plane flying from London to Nairobi. He briefly seized the controls before he was pulled away and detained.

Then three months after the 9/11 attacks, a British man on another international flight lit a match and tried to set his shoe on fire. He had a bomb hidden inside, but the smell of smoke attracted the attention of other passengers and the flight crew who subdued him. 

And since then the rest of us have had to remove our shoes for security checks, and explain all liquids in our luggage, whether water or perfumes.

Large bottles are confiscated along with nail cutters and pen-knives. And these days pilots lock themselves behind secure cockpit doors until the flight ends.

Collectively, these incidents changed the flying experience permanently.

Much as the Covid-19 pandemic has changed our lives, with masks and social distancing, we hope these new norms will end in a few months and not be with us for two decades.