Remembering 9/11 Twenty One Years Later

On 9/11 I was sitting in my office. I was fortunate not to be on the road, although several work colleagues were and it was a challenge to help them get home when planes were grounded.

The first news I heard came in the form of an email. It wasn’t on the newswires yet but I received an email from an industry list I was a part of. I still remember the subject line, “Terrorists are bombing us with airplanes.” I thought it was a joke.

News was quickly coming in, much of it wrong, speculating on the aircraft types and that there could have been an accident (especially after only one plane had hit). We now know much more about what was happening in the air.

People cleared out of the office fairly quickly after the news broke, but my boss at the time kept me around wanting to work through budgets. Traffic that afternoon was terrible, worse than I’ve ever seen in DC. The atmosphere in the city was completely surreal. I remember that my performance at work suffered somewhat those next two months.

The days that followed were just sad. I did my share of crying. D.C. didn’t ‘come together’ in the same way or to the same extent that I remember New York being different at the time. And I didn’t lose anyone ery close to me, but friends of friends I knew were in the Towers that day. One lost all four of her roommates. I visited the towers often in the late 1970s myself.

I’d bring by snacks and chocolates, other little gifts, to the agents I knew at United’s city ticket offices. There were neighborhood offices then and those are the people I knew the best.

Flying in the aftermath of 9/11 is hard to describe. I remember flight attendants who were genuinely scared. And when the flight attendants are scared passengers are too.

Washington National airport didn’t re-open right away. The approach path is so close to ‘important people’ and important people are always more protected. When anthrax was delivered in the mail on Capitol Hill, Hill staffers all got Cipro but Postal Service employees didn’t.

I had a ticket to fly in and out of National airport before flights had resumed, so United moved me over to Dulles but capacity was limited. I remember flying Miami – Orlando – Washington Dulles since I couldn’t get anything non-stop home.

Many airfares after 9/11 actually rose briefly even though people were avoiding the air. Normally you think empty planes means lower prices. But dropping price wouldn’t have convinced marginal flyers into the skies. The people flying were the ones who really had to and they were less price sensitive.

Airport security was federalized. The TSA was initially part of the Department of Transportation, there was no Germanic-sounding Department of Homeland Security then. We got secondary gate screenings but could still bring liquids through checkpoints for about 5 more years. We didn’t have to take our shoes off yet.

Thanks goodness that there aren’t that many people in the United States trying to bring down aircraft. In fact the TSA admitted there were no active plots in records accidentally filed with a court. Of course we’ve hardened access to airport gates around the world, making pre-security a target in places like Brussels and Instanbul, and making things other than aviation relatively better targets.

Passengers though are our best line of defense. Before 9/11 if a plane was hijacked passengers would remain docile. We’d wait it out until terrorist demands were met, and in all likelihood most people would be ok. The equilibrium shifted and passengers now assume terrorists will bring down planes, so they aren’t going to sit idly by. That may be the most important change in aviation security over the past 20 years.

Here are the names of flight crew who lost their lives on the 4 planes taken that day. The Captain Jason Dahl Scholarship Fund has helped aspiring pilots and in the process of fundraising created incredible experiences for frequent flyers as well. The passengers on the planes are worth remembering too of course.

We’re just now bringing 20 years of war (mostly) to a close in Afghanistan. We’re still waging ‘war on terrorism’ domestically. Osama bin Laden is dead. The 19 hijackers died in their attempts. Would-be hijackers Zacarias Moussaoui, Fawaz al-Nashimi, Mohammed al-Qahtani, Ramzi bin al-Shibh and others are either dead or imprisoned. We fought in Iraq (though there was no real connection to 9/11) though more Americans died in Iraq than on 9/11. And since 9/11 we’ve let the federal government abuse power to collect all internet traffic from Americans, and monitor all of our locations. No one went to prison for that.

Each day for the next 8 years was a reminder for me of 9/11 because my daily commute at the time took me right past the Pentagon. Flying for me wasn’t scary. Neither were most of the places I’ve visited. I attribute that to driving twice a day past an actual target from 9/11. What else that I would do would be more dangerous?

9/11 will always be personal for many people, and I’ll forever resent those who used it for their own political or business purposes. Congressman Jim Moran of Virginia for instance, a month after 9/11, declared of the government pork opportunities “It’s an open grab bag, so let’s grab.”

It saddens me to see this displayed by TSA as though they somehow own the legacy of 9/11, even if they’re a sad result of it.

Just as 9/11 isn’t solely the province of aviation, this year aviation again finds itself in the position of much of the world as it continues to struggle through a global pandemic. It’s the people involved on the front lines under the greatest stress. 9/11 is both a sad and hopeful day, pointing to resilience and a brighter future to follow but one with many bumps and disappointments along the way.

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