These Are the Most Surprising Things You Could Do at an Airport Before 9/11

Before 9/11 changed airport security forever, rules were a lot more lax at airports across America. Sure, airports and airlines enforced some common-sense rules. But back then, you could also do a lot of things that would get you into major trouble today. (In some cases, even bigger trouble than you encounter when you pack something that the TSA prohibits.)

Read on to take a stroll down memory lane and remember what the airport was like before 9/11 changed everything.

1. Move through the airport without encountering the TSA

Holiday travelers at Salt Lake City Airport
You never had to remove your shoes. | George Frey/Getty Images

Only a few people can skip TSA screenings today. But it used to be that nobody had to remove their shoes, empty their pockets, or pull half their belongings out of their carry-on in order to get to the gate.

You could actually keep your shoes on the whole time at the airport. Plus, you could leave your laptop in your bag as you made your way to your terminal and then found your gate. That’s something that’s basically unheard of today unless you have TSA PreCheck

2. Go to the gate to send off a friend or family member

Washington DC airport
You didn’t used to need a ticket to go to a gate. | tupungato/iStock/Getty Images

Before 9/11, you didn’t have to have a plane ticket to walk to a gate at the airport. If you had the time to do it, you could accompany a friend or a family member to the airport to see them off. Or, you could be waiting at the gate when a much-anticipated guest arrives.

You have much more limited options today. Most people just wait in the arrivals lobby or at baggage claim when they need to pick someone up. And some even wait in their car. 

3. Pull up to the curb and wait at the airport

The Domodedovo International Airport
No one would come tell you to keep moving. | Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

Alternatively, Deseret News notes that before 9/11, you had more options for picking up somebody at the airport without actually going into the airport yourself. “You could pull up to the curb at the airport and wait for passengers without being chased off by uniforms,” the publication explains.

Today, you won’t be so lucky at most airports. Officials have a lot more things to worry about. They have parking rules to enforce. Plus, they have airport security concerns to keep in mind. And in some cases, they even have rideshare services to chase away.

4. Take a bottle of water with you

Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll drinks water
You had more options of what you could take on the plane. | Daniel Velez/AFP/Getty Images

Water fountains likely had just as many germs before 9/11 as they do now. But Deseret News reports that not that long ago, you could take a bottle of water with you to the airport. “Nobody rifled through your belongings and confiscated toothpaste, sunscreen and bottles of water. Who knew they could be made into bombs,” the publication notes.

Today, staying hydrated involves either braving the water fountains or overpaying for a bottle of water at a convenience store or a restaurant at your terminal. Not exactly a convenient way to avoid dehydration — and reduce your chances of getting sick — when you fly. 

5. Keep your belongings with you at all times

Newark International Airport
You could hold on to your carry-on. | tupungato/iStock/Getty Images

As Matador Network points out, many travelers miss some of the more mundane things they could do at the airport before 9/11. One of the most notable? Keeping your belongings with you at all times. (Instead of having to spread them out in bins and on the conveyor belt as you go through airport security.)

Some travelers have had the unfortunate experience of having their belongings stolen at the airport. But even if you haven’t, you probably feel nervous about walking away from your laptop, your smartphone, and all of the other expensive items packed in your carry on. 

6. Pack an oversized suitcase

family with suitcases in the airport
The weight rules were more lax. |

These days, neither the airports nor the airlines want you to travel with an oversized or overweight suitcase. That’s why airlines charge all those fees! But as CNN notes, it’s a major pain to drag an overweight or oversized suitcase through airport security.

“Travelers of a certain age can remember lugging overstuffed suitcases to the airport and talking airline workers into allowing suitcases over the weight limit onto the plane,” CNN explains. But many say that they now try to travel as light as possible. It takes a lot of strength and patience to get through security with a large bag. (Even one that stays within the airline’s limits.)

7. Catch your flight without spending half your day at the airport

Passengers waiting in a row for boarding on an airport to a flight to America
It took less time to get to your plane. | RobertHoetink/iStock/Getty Images

Flight delays have always happened, regardless of the state of airport security. But as seasoned travelers will fondly remember, it didn’t always take half a day at the airport to catch a flight.

In fact, before 9/11, you didn’t have to arrive at the airport two or three hours ahead of your flight. Those days have long passed. With long lines and time-consuming screenings at security checkpoints, it can take an hour or more just to get from one end of the TSA checkpoint to the other. 

8. Run through the airport

Passengers are boarding
Running now might look suspicious. |

Nobody particularly likes running through the airport catch a flight that’s about to depart. But Deseret News reports that before 9/11, you really could “show up minutes before you flight and make it to the gate.”

Columnist Doug Robinson recounts a time when he “arrived at the curb of the airport three minutes before my plane was scheduled to leave.” Robinson then “sprinted up the stairs and down the concourse to the gate, making it just seconds before they closed the door to the plane. It was awesome,” he reminisces. “Nowadays, I would be shot.” 

9. Count on the rules being consistent

Airport Security bag search by TSA agent
Some officials enforce different requirements now. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

CNN points out that another major change has occurred post-9/11. Before the attacks, rules were consistent. Today, they’re anything but. “In the pre-9/11 security days, people knew what to pack in their checked luggage and carry-on baggage (nearly anything, it seemed),” CNN notes.

But these days, it’s hard to know what to expect of the TSA’s rules. And you can’t predict how the personnel at your specific airport will interpret them. CNN reports, “Travel experts say people can adapt to tighter security requirements if the rules are clear and consistent. It’s when officials enforce different requirements at different airports that travelers don’t believe the new procedures contribute to more secure flights.”

10. Use any lock on your baggage

You have to have a TSA-approved lock. | Jupiterimages/iStock/Getty Images

Want to lock up your checked baggage? Then you have to use a TSA-approved lock. But as Matador Network notes, you didn’t have to do that pre-9/11. After all, the agency didn’t even exist until a couple months later.

The publication points out that even though Americans have to use them, TSA-approved locks are still unavailable in many places outside of the United States. So depending on where you live or where you travel from, it’s gotten a lot more annoying to find a lock you can use on your suitcase. 

11. Assume that your checked bags wouldn’t get opened up

Packed Suitcase with Women's Clothing
There’s a chance your bag will be opened. | Janet Rhodes/iStock/Getty Images

Matador Network also notes that before 9/11, you could check your bag with your airline and assume that nobody would open it. Unfortunately, you can’t have the same confidence today.

In fact, you can’t assume that nobody will see your stash of dirty socks. And all bets are off as to whether the TSA will jumble up a meticulously arranged suitcase. As Matador Network notes, you may have seen “notes left by TSA in your luggage, advising you that they’d done a hand-inspection because they saw something suspicious.”

12. Move through the airport without experiencing racial profiling

TSA Precheck
Many people experience racial profiling at the airport. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

America still has a lot of work to do in overcoming racism. But in the days before 9/11, you had a better chance of moving through the airport without experiencing racial profiling — at least from officials working at the airport.

The New York Times reports that traveling while Muslim really complicates flying. Black travelers also experience their share of racism at airport security, too. Many Americans think that racial profiling at the airport is OK. But that might mean that we should examine our ideas about civil liberties and democracy

13. Explore the airport without listening to loops of safety warnings

Young female passenger on smart phone at airport
It’s not the most pleasant thing to hear on a loop. | petrenkod/iStock/Getty Images

A focus on safety is definitely a good thing in a public place. But Matador Network notes that before 9/11, you didn’t have to listen to the ever-present loop of “security warnings about terror threat levels, unattended bags being destroyed, etc.”

Travelers used to enjoy exploring airports, even in the United States. You could walk up and down terminals looking for interesting businesses. You could get some shopping done. And you could grab a meal between flights. You can still do all of those things. But post-9/11, many travelers find it difficult not to feel stressed and on-edge the whole time they walk around the airport. 

14. Travel to Canada without a passport

Young woman passenger in 20s travelling with backpack, boarding airplane
Passport rules have changed. |

Before 9/11, Americans could travel to and from Canada without a passport. That’s obviously not the case anymore. And we have to point out that there are numerous surprising rules you need to be aware of when you travel with an American passport.

Outrageously enough, if you live in certain states , you’ll need to stash your passport in your carry on not only when you travel internationally, but also when you take a domestic flight. That’s thanks to identification requirements, which some states’ IDs don’t meet. 

15. Return to the U.S. without answering endless questions

Young happy couple getting up with baggage on the escalator to the departure
International trips can be a hassle. | RossHelen/iStock/Getty Images

Matador Network notes that before 9/11, you could return from an international trip to an airport in the United States without having to answer question after question after question. But that’s not the case anymore.

As the publication notes, “Immigrations officials question you exhaustively upon reentry to the US about the whereabouts and ‘purposes’ of your travels abroad.” Even if you’ve done absolutely nothing wrong. 

16. Travel without wondering what could go wrong on your flight

Woman waiting her flight at airport terminal
It’s hard not to have any worries. | VladTeodor/iStock/Getty Images

As Matador Network points out, one of the most surprising things that you could do at the airport before 9/11 was to get on a plane without thinking, “Nothing could go wrong on this flight, right?”

We all know that despite its expensive technology and extensive screening procedures, the TSA doesn’t catch everything. So when you board a plane, it’s hard not to worry about what could go wrong. Major security breaches remain rare. But in a post 9/11 world, it’s impossible not to think about it.

Read more: This Surprising Airline Rule Can Help If You Miss Your Flight

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