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 1960-s. 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 be taken at Zurich Kloten airport, with passengers queueing 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 circulates 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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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to aviation.SE! If you don't get a good answer here you might also try travel.SE; passenger security screening is often off-topic here because it's more about traveling by air than about aviation. But let's see what others think. $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Commented May 20, 2018 at 12:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Pondlife It's at best borderline for Travel.SE, as it's about historical practices in the industry as opposed to anything that would help solve a practical, real-life problem for a current-day traveler. By analogy it would be like asking SO what pre-ALGOL coding standards were like in the 1950s. It's "interesting" but not "on-topic." $\endgroup$
    – choster
    Commented May 24, 2018 at 3:25
  • $\begingroup$ @choster I'm not very familiar with travel.SE so thanks for the information! This question might be off-topic on both sites; we usually close questions on passenger security screening because they have so little relevance to aircraft operations. $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Commented May 24, 2018 at 14:40
  • $\begingroup$ This has no connection in any way to Travel.SE. $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Commented Aug 18, 2018 at 8:25
  • $\begingroup$ This is not a question about "how-to passenger security screening" (as in "Can I carry aspirin?"), it's about historical airport practices. $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Commented Aug 18, 2018 at 8:27

3 Answers 3


Other airport questions have been answered here and the FAA seems to have been involved in early regulations so Id say this is in scope here.

Airport security is a bit older than the 70's. The first serious criminal aviation incident occurred in 1955 but hijacking has occurred since the dawn of aviation with cases being recorded as far back as 1930. The first serious increase in security appears to have come in 1961 (bolding my emphasis)

Antulio Ramirez Ortiz hijacks a National Airlines flight to Cuba after it takes off in Florida. It is the first aerial hijacking of a U.S. passenger plane.

The U.S. government begins placing armed guards on commercial planes when requested by airlines or the FBI.

If you follow the citation in the metal detector wiki it sounds like the FAA started to make mandates in the early 70's following the DB copper incident but it clear things were happening before then.

But sky marshals couldn't ride on every flight, and the hijackings didn't end. So in December 1972, the FAA gave the airlines one month to begin searching all passengers and their bags. Dennis O'Madigan, then Director of Security for Piedmont Airlines, says metal detectors known as magnetometers were rigged up from a device originally used by loggers.

You should also keep in mind that in the earlier days of aviation ticket prices were extremely high and traveling via air was not as accessible as it is today thus some level of security was closer to what we see on private jets today. As ticket prices came down and the popularity grew greatly security became more of a concern.

On a similar note airport security has varied over time around the world. El Al the flagship carrier for Israle has generally implements security well above what most others are doing.

As for your pictures, the first one is dated 1970 which is in line with the timeline following the slew of incidents in the late 60's and the FAA's mandate of metal detectors in 72. The second picture is a bit of a mystery, it could be mis-labeled or they could simply be asking about weapons leaving the country as Switzerland historically has fairly liberal firearm laws and many other countries do not. The third photo looks staged or like a special situation, you can even see another photographer in the background. The Woman may in some way be famous (I cant identify her) and appears to be posing. That also looks like an EKG or polygraph machine...

  • $\begingroup$ Well, as you said yourself, early airline security was much more focused on law enforcement presence and dealing with hijackers, as opposed to screening all the passengers to prevent things. Still I do not believe, and I think the previous answer pretty much confirms this, there was some kind of screening for everyone universally. $\endgroup$
    – Kit Smith
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 0:18
  • $\begingroup$ I heard that some American airports and airlines screened select passengers, who would behave too suspiciously, at their own initiative, in the few years before it was mandated for everybody. Probably similar things happened in other places... But still I am pretty sure that was not before the age of metal detectors being used to screen people. So I am puzzled with regards to what "will replace the searching of passengers" means $\endgroup$
    – Kit Smith
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 0:36
  • $\begingroup$ Regarding the Swiss picture, asking questions about things is precisely how I would normally understand "inquiries", but why would they do that in enclosed cubicles, with the signs for ladies and gentlemen, separately? The nearby "toilets" sign seems to be pointing elsewhere :)) $\endgroup$
    – Kit Smith
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 0:50
  • $\begingroup$ It seems that Swiss airports started deploying police officers to meet passengers at the airstairs immediately prior to them boarding their flights, and look for the clues, such as suspicious behavior circa 1969. Then soon after the Dowson Field, where one of the planes was a Swissair flight, they went on to screen everyone. I still could not find any more information on what that screening would look like in practice. $\endgroup$
    – Kit Smith
    Commented May 23, 2018 at 20:45

I would say that it was a situation where different airport authorities started to implement procedures on their own starting in the late 60s when the hijacking trade was getting started, and the conventions were adopted later to implement uniform security standards worldwide.


I traveled ( in the US ) in the 60's and remember the only check was for a ticket and that you were not trying to carry on a large suitcase. I remember some security checks starting in the late 70's after a few hijackings by Cubans. Then came the Muslims.

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    $\begingroup$ Apologizing in advance for any lack of political correctness. $\endgroup$ Commented May 20, 2018 at 19:36
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    $\begingroup$ Air travel was much more enjoyable back then , and easy, essentially no security as today. In about 1968 I was in Philadelphia ( traveling to Chicago) with my boss , he knew how to travel, he had a "million mile " plaque. from American . We were one hour early for our flight , so instead of wasting that hour , he got out his schedule and said "Follow me ". We ran through the terminal to Braniff (?) , showed them our American tickets and got on about 5 minutes before departure. $\endgroup$ Commented May 20, 2018 at 20:26
  • $\begingroup$ What you are describing is pretty much exactly the image I have in my head about this, so when I found these little references to the passengers being searched before the introduction of metal detectors, I started wondering if my impression was wrong. I am curious what those pictures are about if universal passenger screening was not a thing even in the late sixties. $\endgroup$
    – Kit Smith
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 0:05
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    $\begingroup$ I think it is likely that Europe had more security sooner. I am certain El Al did. $\endgroup$ Commented May 21, 2018 at 2:54
  • $\begingroup$ The pictures are dated December October 1970. That would suggest that these new measures were introduced in response to the Dowson Field incident in September that year. gettyimages.co.uk/license/788214337 gettyimages.co.uk/license/788214341 gettyimages.co.uk/detail/photo/… These three pictures all taken at Heathrow, also show that passenger screening was introduced probably within mere days after the Dowson Field. So, it was, indeed, a few years before the US. $\endgroup$
    – Kit Smith
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 19:31

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