The first airport to screen passengers with metal detectors

There are many milestones in aviation. One that you may not think of often – but which has had a significant impact on aviation safety and on every journey made today – is the introduction of metal detector screening. It’s standard today, but wasn’t introduced until the 1970s. It was first introduced in the United States, with New Orleans International Airport becoming the first user of the gantry metal detecting in July 1970.

The beginnings of airport security

The early decades of flight saw very little, if any, airport security. Passengers were much more free to carry items on board the plane, and others could easily accompany passengers to the plane.

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Things began to change after a series of hijackings in the 1960s. In particular, several American private and commercial aircraft were hijacked mid-air and transported to Cuba. According to The Smithsonian, in 1969 alone there were 40 hijackings in the United States and a total of 89 worldwide.

Passenger profiling was a first attempt to try to control the situation. Passengers were visually selected for secondary screening, which could include searches and the use of hand-held metal detectors or magnetometers. This would quickly evolve into screening all passengers as metal detecting equipment improved.


By 1970, the metal detector portal was commercially available, and New Orleans International Airport in Louisiana became the first airport to install them. Use began on July 17, 1970 (according to IBM historical recollections). These metal detectors (much like those still in use today) were designed to detect metal components used in weapons, but they will of course detect anything metallic. It was not then mandatory to screen all passengers and, at the beginning, metal detector gates were probably used alongside the selected screening.

More and more manufacturers quickly entered the market as the use of airport magnetometers increased. Other airports soon began to introduce such screening, but it did not become mandatory until 1973. In January 1973, the FAA introduced the requirement that all passengers be screened before a flight. This became federal law in the United States in 1974 under the Air Transport Security Act. It also specified the requirement that all baggage carried on board be X-ray inspected.


Continuous improvements in screening since then

The process of metal detection and X-ray baggage screening has of course become standard worldwide. Hijackings and security incidents have been reduced from the peaks of the 1960s, but changes have been made since then – often in response to incidents.

Metal detector and x-ray scanners are standard worldwide. Photo: Getty Images

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 are the most significant example. This led to major changes in the United States, with the creation of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to directly manage security. Checked baggage also needed to be screened, the use of air marshalling was increased, and aircraft cockpits were secured.

The restrictions on liquids we all know today came about in 2006. This followed the discovery of plots to detonate liquid explosives during a series of flights between the UK and the US. Laptops and other electronic devices now need closer scrutiny after plans to use them as explosive devices were discovered – there was even a ban on laptops from some airports for a short time in 2017.


The TSA manages security in the United States – with continuously updated technology and processes. Photo: Getty Images

Security technology and processes continue to evolve, as does the cost to airports and airlines. Full body scanners (called millimeter wave scanners which use electromagnetic radiation to detect any object around a person) are the next iteration. They are now commonly seen in airports alongside traditional metal detectors. These were first used in Europe (at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol) in 2007 and are now used in many countries – despite continued privacy concerns from some groups.

Airport security has undoubtedly changed a lot since the beginnings of simple screening in the 1970s. With crowded airports and staff shortages these days, it’s often a long and frustrating process – but still essential. Feel free to discuss the security changes further down in the comments.