Saturday marks 20 years since 1st TSA checkpoint opened

Apr 29, 2022

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Saturday marks 20 years since the Transportation Security Administration began screening U.S. passengers, kicking off a new and unprecedented era of security at airports nationwide.

The agency, created in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, marked the anniversary with a ceremony Friday at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) in Maryland, the first airport to have its security checkpoints federalized on April 30, 2002. The ceremony included federal workers who were among the agency’s first to screen passengers; 100 of the TSA’s original agents still work at BWI today.

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first day of tsa at bwi
The first TSA checkpoint in operation on April 30, 2002, at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI). (Photo courtesy of the TSA)

Congress created the TSA in the months after 9/11, with President George W. Bush signing the law creating the agency on Nov. 19, 2001. Among other provisions, the law mandated passenger screening at airports by federal officials instead of private companies, along with a requirement that all baggage be examined prior to flights.

Less than six months later, the TSA stood up its first checkpoint at BWI, which served as a sort of pilot location for the agency as it tested policies and procedures before expanding to now 430 locations across the U.S.

present day tsa bwi
The present day TSA at BWI. (Photo courtesy of TSA)

Related: Answering questions about PreCheck, Global Entry

In the 20 years since that spring 2002 day when federal agents began screening passengers, the agency’s checkpoints have become so synonymous with a trip to the airport, it’s almost hard to imagine air travel without them.

Plenty of travelers like myself cannot remember a time when a trip to the airport did not involve a pre-flight pass through a TSA checkpoint. I likewise find it even harder to imagine being allowed past airport security to, say, watch planes take off and land or greet an arriving family member at their gate — both of which, my father assures me, we did in the 1990s.

Taking such a laissez faire trip onto the airport concourse ceased to be an option after 9/11, though, as federal officials stepped up security. More than four years after beginning its operation, the TSA tightened its grip even further in 2006, after attempted attacks sparked the agency to require the removal of shoes and further regulate the carrying on of liquids, gels and aerosol substances.

Related: Flying on a Friday or Sunday? Get to the airport earlier

Today, the TSA plays such a major role in every U.S. airport, I probably don’t even have to utter the entire phrase for you to identify the TSA’s associated command when I say  “shoes,” “laptops” or “liquids.“

Line for TSA PreCheck
(Photo by George Frey/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

TPG’s staff has spent countless hours over the years pulling together our best advice on avoiding long TSA lines, making your trip through the checkpoint as pain-free as possible, and closely monitoring changes that could affect your future airport visits.

The agency’s existence has also inspired an entire set of programs, like TSA PreCheck and Clear, which offer wait-shortening benefits for paying members.

With more than 64,000 employees today, the TSA continues to roll out advancements – like an expansion of its CT-scan technology for carry-on baggage.

“We have made significant safety and security improvements,” TSA administrator David Pekoske said during Friday’s ceremony at BWI. “We are indeed leading the world in security globally.”

Featured photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

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