The Impact of 9/11 on the Aircraft Industry

When compared to 2001, today’s air travel experience is almost unrecognizable.

The Impact of 9/11 on the Aircraft Industry


On September 11, 2001, 19 hijackers hijacked four Boeing planes, two operated by American Airlines and two by United, and used them to commit terrorist acts that killed over 3,000 people. Two of the planes collided with the World Trade Center towers in New York. Another plane flew into the Pentagon, while a fourth plane went down in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

The September 11 attacks had a significant economic impact, particularly on the aviation industry. Changes in the key actors in commercial aviation, along with new, more stringent security protocols, fundamentally altered the industry’s landscape. Many features of plane travel today would be unfamiliar to anybody who traveled before September 11, 2001.

Unprecedented economic disruption

The commercial aviation industry in the United States has weathered economic downturns and predicted revenue drops due to the seasonal pattern of leisure travel, but it had not seen a catastrophe on the scale of the September 11 attacks. According to the International Air Transport Association, passenger airlines in the United States suffered a net loss of $8.0 billion in 2001, with revenues not exceeding 2000 levels until 2004.

Unfortunately, the industry’s recovery was brief. The start of the Great Recession in the United States in 2008 gave a further setback to commercial aviation. Due to severe financial difficulties, some of the leading airlines, including Delta, Northwest, United, and US Airways, filed for bankruptcy. The repercussions would reduce the number of major carriers from several to four.

In 2010, Continental Airlines partnered with United Airlines. Photo


The merger of Delta and Northwest Airlines in 2008 was the first important act of consolidation during this time period. United and Continental merged in 2010, and Southwest and AirTran merged shortly after in 2011. Finally, in 2013, American Airlines and US Airways combined. By 2018, American, United, Delta, and Southwest Airlines owned 75% of the commercial air travel market in the United States.

Following the upheaval, airlines discovered new, long-term revenue streams. Many airlines began charging for meals and checked bags, and they divided the economy cabin into subclasses with paid privileges like priority boarding. They also added additional seats to increase income on every flight, which reduced passenger comfort.

Modification of security protocols

Between 1973 and 2001, there have been no significant adjustments to airport security measures. Private contractors contracted by the airlines were in charge of security. Travelers passed through modest metal detectors, and luggage was inspected only briefly. Passengers might enter the terminal without displaying a boarding pass or even identification.

However, President George W. Bush approved the Aviation and Transportation Security Act in November 2001, establishing the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The federal government then took over passenger screening.

In the years that followed, a wave of new security rules was enacted. After a shoe bombing attempt in December 2001, passengers were asked to remove their shoes so that they could be checked separately. Sharp instruments, such as nail files and pen knives, were not permitted in the cabin. High-resolution, full-body scanners gradually supplanted basic metal detectors.

Following the Transatlantic Bomb Plot in 2006, the TSA enforced new restrictions requiring any liquids or gels carried into aircraft to be limited to 3.4 ounces and fit into a single, clear, resealable bag no more than one quart in size. Laptop computers and other electronic items have to be removed from carry-on luggage before being scanned by new 3-D imaging X-ray scanners.  

Beginning in March 2008, passengers saw see TSA canine teams assisting with baggage and even person screening at major airports across the United States. TSA launched the Precheck program in December 2011, allowing qualified travelers to bypass long security queues in exchange for an $85.-per-year membership fee.

As governments strive to prevent terrorist actions, the ramifications of the horrific events of September 11, 2001, will almost certainly forever define the air travel experience, both in the United States and around the world.






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