Airport security has stiffened greatly in the past few decades, and most noticeably in the United States since the 2001-09-11 attacks. It is not clear, however, that the inconveniences imposed have in fact been improving safety for anyone; they often seem less like rationally-designed attempts to improve safety while minimizing inconvenience and more like publicity-minded attempts to increase the public impression that security has been tightened, often maximizing inconvenience for the sake of appearance while in fact overlooking serious flaws in the system that potentially undermine any real security gains -- a practice often described as "security theatre".
For example, passengers now must remove their shoes, presumably in order to demonstrate that they are not concealing any non-metallic weapons there; however, anecdotal evidence is strong that small weapons such as pen-knives can be left on one's person (in one's pants pocket, for example) without detection. Mechanical pencils, which are certainly more dangerous than plastic knives (are plastic knives actually prohibited, or is that just a rumor?), are allowed through without comment.
Knitting needles are supposedly banned, which is perhaps understandable, but so are crochet hooks, which is much less so. (These items are currently not banned, though there were persistent rumors that they were; is there a reference for changes to the official policy? I seem to recall that a lot of things were banned at first, but that the rules were gradually relaxed for many items, only to be stiffened again after each new threat (e.g. the shoe bomber) hit the news. W.)
The official list of prohibited and permitted items appears to be on the US Transportation Security Administration's web site:
- Permitted and Prohibited Items - air travel
- The earliest version of this page at archive.org is dated 2006-08-20; there are links on earlier versions of the site to a "prohibited items list" with a different URL, but none of these seem to have been archived (although I didn't search exhaustively). If anyone has printouts or saved copies of earlier versions of this list, please contact Issuepedia or upload a scanned image of the list!
- Question: on what basis are these gradually stiffening security measures imposed? Do they really do any measurable good?
- One study says there's no evidence they do, because no studies have been set up to determine one way or the other. This supports the hypothesis that the stiffening of airport security is largely policy theatre, in particular scaremongering designed to increase awareness and fear of the threat of terrorism, and hence gain support for the US-Iraq War and other power trips.
some historical notes
Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, when RDU was a non-international airport with one terminal, you could walk out onto the tarmac to meet arriving passengers. Later in the 1970s (or possibly early 1980s) this was prohibited, but you could still go out to the gate to meet passengers as they filed into the terminal. Finally, after 9/11 (or possibly before), they were only letting ticketed passengers into the arrivals/departures area (where the gates are). Then, after a planned terrorist attack was apparently thwarted in 2006 (can anyone find specifics on this?), nearly all fluids were banned from both carry-on and checked luggage -- including basic essentials such as toothpaste, shampoo, etc.
I find it ironic, also, that the list of prohibited items only seems to get longer as the detection technology improves; the reverse should be true. --Woozle 16:36, 12 April 2007 (EDT)
The increased security-presence in airports has also spilled over into other venues, such as hospitals, which now sometimes also prohibit items such as knitting needles. (At one hospital here in Durham, the emergency room had a metal-detector and security guard, but other entrances had no security at all; knitting needles were not allowed, but it was fairly easy to smuggle them in via other entrances with relatively little research, including one entrance less than 50 feet from the security guard. How does this make sense, and who is it really benefiting? --Woozle 16:36, 12 April 2007 (EDT)) Are these common symptoms of the same thing, e.g. a rising level of fear in the general public or among administrators, or is airport security being taken as a model for other types of security?
"The purpose of the TSA is to demonstrate that Americans are no longer citizens; we are now subjects of an incompetent empire. You will obey, even though you know we are being ridiculous and, and we know you know, and you know that we know that you know, etc. In other words, obey!" – Jerry Pournelle 
- Eric S. Raymond: 2002-06-01 Arm the Passengers and 2010-11-18 I join the not-flying list: "Count me with those who will not be flying until the TSA procedures requiring either a full-body X-ray scan or a grope are rescinded..." (this refers more specifically to the 2010 procedural changes).
- 2006-10-06 Subject: TSA stupidity and the US Marine Corps: USMC Lance Corporal flying home on a rented 747 is allowed to keep his M16A4, M249, and a sheathed bayonet, but has his toothpaste confiscated because it violates safety rules.
- 2011-07-17T17:06:00 [L..T] Woman boards plane with 3-inch knife TWICE but TSA plays it down because explosives are 'biggest threat' An Indianapolis woman was shocked to discover she had been able to board a plane with a three-inch knife in her carry-on bag not once, but twice.
- 2011-07-17 [L..T] Pilot drives 6,000 mi to protest TSA
- 2011-07-16T23:58:00 [L..T] headline::Will you be a "known traveller"? lead paragraph::Earlier this month, the US Travel Association released the results of a survey that found that 45 percent of respondents would pay a fee of "up to" $150 for a background check and verification program that would allow them to speed through airport security. On Friday, America's Transportation Security Administration announced that this Fall, it will move ahead with a plan to test just such a program.
- Kip Hawley Is an Idiot: archive of site criticizing TSA chief Kip Hawley [W] for his idiotic policies; site was apparently discontinued some time between 2008-07-05 and 2009-09-22
- 2007-09-30 Daughter-in-law of NYC politician dies in Ariz. police custody by Karen Matthews, Associated Press: "The stepdaughter-in-law of [New York] city's public advocate, found dead in a police holding cell in Arizona, was a "wonderful" woman and mother, Betsy Gotbaum said. .. Carol Anne Gotbaum was found in the cell where she had been taken in handcuffs after being arrested at an airport."
- I Drew This (webcomic) by D.C. Simpson: 2007-04-10