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I just accidentally discovered a few pictures on the web, that seem to imply, that there were some sort of airport security checks on passengers all the way back in the 1960s. It was always my general understanding that airport security screening was not a thing before the Hague and Montreal conventions in the early seventies and the various national regulations that followed, so I was really quite surprised about the photos, but I have a suspicion that they could be dated incorrectly or the descriptions might be wrong.

For example, here is a press article photo, of what apparently is an early metal detector.

The description on the back of it clearly says that this device is to replace searching of passengers at the airport. Does that mean that all the passengers boarding aircraft were searched in some other way before that?

Here is another picture that left me puzzled.

It seems to have been taken at Zurich Kloten airport, with passengers queuing for some booths where they will be "inquired on weapons". What does that mean, what is happening inside those things? Was there some kind of security procedure, exclusive to Swissair flights, or to the Swiss airports? If such a thing existed, when did they drop that, in favor of the normal screening? Those "ladies" and "gentlemen" signs look really weird...

And one more picture.

The uploader claims they found it on the Atlanta airport website, which then claimed this was a test of some airport security machine as early as the year 1960! I mean that was before the first hijacking of a commercial flight in the US, if I am not mistaken! I think this one could probably be fake or a joke, or just something irrelevant to airport security. I do not think I see any electronic equipment here except for the data logger in the front, yet judging by the way the people are dressed this seems to be taken in the sixties, even though I am no fashion expert. The picture is circulating in the web with this description, but I could not find any more information on it. And that just makes me even more interested to know what is actually happening there.

If anyone knows what these things are all about, and how it used to work back then, I would absolutely love to hear that. So any explanations strongly appreciated! Thank You!

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    You're not getting any answers because no one can remember the 60's. ;-) – Phil N DeBlanc May 23 '18 at 22:01
  • I met people on the Internet who actually do remember :) Hopefully someone can answer – Kit Smith May 23 '18 at 22:43
  • I actually do remember (since the middle 60s) There were security checks (metal detectors) in Soviet airports. – Alex May 24 '18 at 3:23
  • In Soviet airports? But the first soviet hijacking was in 1970. And the first actually serious attempt was the year before that. Some Russian language sources suggest that metal detectors were introduced in airports after the hijackings in 1973. However, this airline crews training film says, in the documentary part in the beginning, that it was not until 1977 – Kit Smith May 24 '18 at 13:40
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This is a fair bit before my time, but the first two photographs at least seem quite reasonable. They're both technically from the 1970s anyway, and so doesn't contradict your impression.

That said, while systematic security screening at airports were only implemented in the 1970s, limited checks had already been introduced in certain airports during the preceding decade. This was done in response to the rise of hijackings and terrorist attacks. In the US at least, this was voluntarily done on the urging of the FAA, in airports from where hijacked flights had originated.

The Federal Aviation Administration . . . persuaded a airline to install a limited number of walk-through metal detectors and X-ray machines for carry-on items at selected airports from which hijacked flights originated. With the airlines resistant to mandates that would increase their costs, the FAA did not pursue legislation.

Poole, Robert W. "The case for risk-based aviation security policy." World Customs Journal 3.2 (2009): 3-16.

Hence, note that the first photo is dated December 1970, three months after the notorious simultaneous hijacking terrorist attack in September of that year. In all likelihood you're looking at security measures introduced in direct response to thay attack. Likewise, it's telling that the second example is labelled Zurich-Kloten in 1970. No doubt the depicted security measures were deployed in reaction to the Palestinian terrorist attack that occurred on its runways in 1969.

Both photos are plausibly dated and I see no reason to suspect the captions to be incorrect.

As for the third example from Atlanta, the uploader likely found the photo from the Atlanta History Center. The image was posted to their tumblr account just a few days before the Reddit thread. Note that the date is officially given as "c. 1960", not 1960 exactly as claimed (one suspects the Redditor did not realise what the abbreviation means). Most likely the photo actually does postdates the 1961 hijacking, though I was unable to verify this.

According to the Atlanta History Center, the photographer is called Bill Wilson, and the woman is named as Linda Fay, both of whom seems to have passed. The official description given by the collection is "View of Linda Fay reacting to the first airport security instrument tested at the Atlanta Municipal Airport (now Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport) in Atlanta, Georgia."

  • Thank you for your reply! I agree that the first two photos appear legitimate, and it does seem like universal passenger screening was deployed in Europe in direct response to the Dowson Field incident, and several immediately before that. I heard that the first checkpoints with metal detectors and bag inspections were introduced in New Orleans in the summer 1970. Several major hubs apparently followed soon, even though it was not mandatory yet in the US. – Kit Smith May 24 '18 at 3:11
  • What I am wondering about is that the caption on the back of the Orly picture suggests that the introduction of the metal detector was not the introduction of screening, which was present in some other form before that point. So my main question there was whether that was true or just a misleading description. Regarding the Swiss picture, it just looks strange, what were they going to do, so that they had to set up these enclosure things, in the middle of the terminal? Why make it look so different from everyone else? Again the description does not explain much at all really... – Kit Smith May 24 '18 at 3:22
  • And the third picture, do you think it is real? It seems to be taken at that time indeed, but... What sort of device would it be technically? The graphs on the paper show some repeating cycles... And the two vertical bars in there do not really look like a magnetometer to me. Also I do not think such things were even being developed back in those days as something for use on humans... Even if the picture postdates the first hijackings, my impression is still that before 1968, both airlines and the passengers viewed them as an inconvenience, rather than terrorism act or something – Kit Smith May 24 '18 at 3:33
  • So everyone was opposed to the idea of screening passengers as that would just scare them off and, as your quote mentions, lead to costs for the carriers. Federal agents could be deployed on flights upon request from 1961... I just think it was considered sufficient back then really. Also the facial expression of the woman and the other photographer in the background suggest that it was something staged. Now that you found the source, and that was not, in fact, the website of the airport, it could be that someone just found it, and said it was airport security as a joke... Or something like it – Kit Smith May 24 '18 at 3:48
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    It seems like you have a lot of questions on details about each of these photos. I know the temptation is to put everything in one place, it's only really appropriate to do that if you want an overview kind of answer. At the level of specificity you seem to be seeking, you should be posting them as separate questions (e.g., "What was the airport security screening process at Zurich-Kloten in 1970, as shown in this photo?"). Please also make your inquiry clear in your question rather than using comments. – Semaphore May 24 '18 at 7:26

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