For many, it is hard to reckon that it has been 20 years since the fateful Tuesday when the world changed. The attacks of September 11th, 2001, still burn in hearts and minds, with the burden of loss and the abundance of memories was all that was left for many. Post-attacks, the world of aviation came together with a promise never to forget the staggering destruction that day brought. Now, 20 years later, the industry finds itself in the face of a different kind of crisis, but the lessons of 9/11 still ring true.
A day that changed the world
September 11th, 2001, seemed to start like any other Tuesday. Schools and offices opened as usual. Airports turned on the light switches prepared to welcome travelers. Starting at 07:59 local time, American Airlines flight 11 took off from Boston Logan International Airport (BOS) headed for Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Fifteen minutes later, United Airlines flight 175 also took off from Boston (BOS), heading to Los Angeles (LAX).
Down at Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD), American Airlines flight 77 took off at 08:20. This flight was also headed to Los Angeles (LAX). The last flight in the morning, United 93, took off from Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR), heading to San Francisco International Airport (SFO), at 08:42.
At 08:46, American flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. At 09:03, United flight 175 struck the South Tower of the World Trade Center. At 09:37, American Airlines flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon.
United flight 93 had deviated from its flight path, heading to Washington D.C. The plane was thought to be intended to target the Capitol or the White House. At 10:02, the aircraft crashed in an empty field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The passengers aboard this flight bravely took matters into their own hands and overcame the hijackers, refusing to let the aircraft be a part of the terrorist attacks against the US and symbols of the country.
Almost 3,000 people lost their lives in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. Many more were injured. In the days, weeks, and years after the attacks, lingering effects led to the demise of many others and left a painful memory.
Air travel comes to a halt
In the days after 9/11, commercial flights came to a halt. The world was asking one question: is air travel safe? While the world mourned, airlines saw a near drop-off in bookings that led to a rough financial crisis for carriers lasting a few years. Many lost their jobs in the aftermath.
There had never been a crisis like 9/11 in the airline industry. While there were hijackings and terrorist attacks on planes, the sheer size of the attacks on 9/11 had never been seen before. Airlines had no playbook for coming out of this crisis.
Safety takes a top priority
Aviation safety became a top priority for airlines, travelers, and the government. While there were some security measures in place, aviation was a different world. Friends and family members of passengers could walk right up to the gate with airline passengers. Security screenings were relatively lax and handled mostly by private contractors.
Then-President George W. Bush signed into law the Aviation and Transportation Security Act. The biggest result of this was the creation of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which took over preflight security screening from private contractors and sought to secure air travel under federal employees. Further regulations began to limit the kinds of things passengers could bring onboard aircraft.
The industry came together
The airline industry has always been incredibly competitive. Employees ranging from pilots to flight attendants to check-in agents to ramp agents to dispatchers and more came together. People in the industry started to turn to each other for emotional support and to process the new role their jobs had taken: a frontline safety role to prevent attacks like this from ever happening again.
Flight attendants began to receive more security training. The industry came together to support greater security, including new cockpit security measures. It should not be overlooked that flight attendants and pilots were some of the first responders in the air that helped alert security officials across the country of what was happening in the sky. Those flying the planes and working the cabin lost their lives on that tragic day as well.
20 years on: the lessons still matter
The 9/11 attacks left a lasting mark on the airline industry, which came together to say never again. Since then, security onboard aircraft has been paramount, and new advancements have resulted in no aircraft hijackings in the US since 9/11. In fact, flying is one of the safest modes of transportation.
The industry is in the middle of a different kind of crisis today. The airline industry is facing a choppy return of air travel in the midst of a global health crisis – one that has led to another staggering toll of loss of life. However, the one thing that has reigned true is that the industry is stronger when it comes together.
In the early days of the crisis, key leaders at airlines and labor organized and pushed for a relief package from the US government that has helped save jobs and keep airlines afloat. Coming together, the industry made it out, bruised and battered, but still with tenacity to keep serving customers and making the skies safer.
A changing passenger traffic
Over the next 10 years, a greater percentage of travelers stepping onboard aircraft will have had little to no memories of 9/11 other than what was taught in schools. An entire generation of travelers is pushing their bags through a security screener, taking their shoes off, and walking through full-body scanners without knowing the impact of that fateful day.
I was too young to remember everything from that day. My parents worked for the US government in Washington D.C. In the years before the rise of smartphones with location-tracking services, my grandmother and I were at our apartment, unclear of what was happening, and my parents scrambling to get home.
The first flight of my life was in 2002 after the world had changed. It was a Boeing 747 operated by British Airways to London-Heathrow. I never got an opportunity to fly in a world where security was not as strict as it became in the post-9/11 atmosphere. Many others younger than me, those same ones who will start to occupy more seats flown previously by business travelers, those same ones who will start families and fly down to Orlando to visit Disney, and those same ones who will be the next frequent fliers.
— United Airlines (@united) September 11, 2021
Every year, 9/11 serves as a reminder of what makes this industry great, and that is its ability to bring people together. Together in the name of safety. Together in the name of travel. Together in the magic of flight. This is a lesson that should never be forgotten and must continue to be passed down.