Remembering 9/11 Eighteen 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).

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 budget numbers. 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. The city 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 very close to me, but friends of friends I knew were in the Towers that day. One lost all four of her roommates.

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 days after flights 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.

Average 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 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 18 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’ve had 18 years of war – both abroad and domestically – resulting from that single day. 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. And we’ve been at war to varying degrees in Afghanistan, Iraq (though there was no real connection to 9/11), and elsewhere ever since. Initially the mission in Afghanistan made some sense, cripple the Al Qaeda network, infrastructure, and training camps. It’s never been clear after that, though more Americans died in Iraq than on 9/11.

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 by 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 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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Even for one day you just can’t help bashing the TSA can you? What’s on deck for this afternoon….another Trump sucks post followed by some more TSA stuff. Whether or not you agree with what TSA does doesn’t matter. That’s right, your opinion doesn’t matter AT ALL. You epitomize the entitled and arrogant American persona that so many around the world view us as. For one day a year is it that hard to by reverent?

  2. @Carter – It’s hard to talk about the legacy of 9/11, in the context of travel, without talking about how airport security changed in response. Sorry if you prefer more anodyne content.

    It’s unclear what Trump has to do with this, airport security was federalized in the Bush administration but Democrats pushed for unionization, and Trump has moved to end the war in Afghanistan. It’s certainly time.

  3. “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.”

    While I can be as cynical as anyone, I think they meant this as less owning the legacy and more because they as Americans also mourn the day and are reminding themselves what they strive for.

    Or maybe yeah its propoganda

  4. It’s not just in the US, not only the TSA: 9/11 spawned a world-wide industry in completely over-the-top airport security. In the months following 9/11 there was a legitimate need for it. Eighteen years on and it’s largely superfluous , now mostly private contractors supping on the public purse.
    But it’s so inextricably linked with border security that it’s hard to see it being toned down anytime soon, anywhere.

  5. Remembering:
    –I worked in the WTC Tower One then Tower Two for 6 years combined. However, I was not working in the WTC when the first bombing took place under Clinton or on 9/11 when the Towers went down.
    — When I saw the Towers go down, I thought 20,000+ were dead. [I just looked it up, some 50,000 people worked in the Two Towers at the time.] However, many people had not come to work and having been trained by the first bombing, people fled the Towers quickly. As a result, 3,000 died instead of 20,000+.
    –New York basically shut down after the bombing. People were pretty much in shock.

    I sincerely hope this comment section does not become too political.

  6. I was living out west and the feelings there IMO were different than back east because all of the events happened back east. I had left my job at an intelligence agency about a year earlier but my friends told me how confusing and scary things were there. And when it was time to evacuate it took hours to leave the facility.

    I did fly afterwards (I think it was October) and airplanes were not crowded and there were a number of incentives to fly in those months (and maybe for the following year?).

    And it was a bit creepy to get on the planes afterwards. You had some extra rules like not being allowed to stand up during approach and takeoff. Airports were much less crowded (due to the terrorist events and also the poor economy). Obviously some people were jumpy wondering when/if it was going to happen again.

    And while some military action was necessary, I kind of wonder at this point whether any of it makes sense. Certain actions are needed when intelligence points out things, but often it just seems like we are putting soldiers at risk for little, if any, gain. And sure, it has become politicized, like everything lately.

  7. Today is a day to put the negative and hateful comments aside . . . let’s remember the friends and family that were lost on that day and during the wars that followed. If people treated each other with respect and honesty, shared opinions without the hate, 9/11 would just be another date on the calendar. Let’s keep that in mind today and nothing more.

  8. i vividly remember watching from my office windows as the flames from the first plane were soon followed by the result of plane #2 flying into the tower. several friends still bear the mental scars of having been there and luckily survived.
    your recollections were riveting to read.
    will never forget that morning!

  9. Thanks to those who commented that we should refrain from negativity here. That is just not appropriate.

    I’m a born-and-raised New Yorker living in California. On that day, for whatever reason, I woke up right as the first plane hit- hours before I usually did. Shortly after, my brother called from Florida and asked “are you watching this?” I wasn’t, then I was, For several days.

    I lost two people I knew in these events. One was a colleague at a competitor who had tried to recruit me. He was on flight 93. He was 40 and left behind a wife and two kids.

    The other was a childhood friend who was a firefighter.

    I work in Silicon Valley and wear Hawai’ian shirts to work. Today, however, as I have done on every other 9/11 I am wearing a black shirt and a “Twin Towers” tie.

    Let’s all remember in our own way and be kind to one another, at least on this thread.


  10. Even now, 18 years later, it still hurts. It will always be deeply personal to me because I grew up in NY City. One of my first jobs was at a law firm across the street from the WTC. And I was working for United airlines on 9/11 and will never, ever forget the chaos of that morning. I still get emotional seeing images from that day. I suppose I always will. So many things have changed since 9/11. Many of them for the worse. But no matter what, we must never, ever forget.

  11. Saw the towers fall from a 9th story office in Woodbridge NJ. Cars were pulled over along route 9 with people standing on their cars, watching the towers burn. Couldn’t get home to Staten Island, the bridges were all shut down, in or out. Tons of folks became instant refugees, including anyone who jumped onto the boatlift who lived in NY. The NJ turnpike north of exit 11 was closed for several days.
    I remember the plume of smoke endlessly billowing out of the pile and blowing south across the harbor. Later, the landfill was reopened for the rubble from the pile, which was first sorted meticulously by NYPD cops looking for any remains.
    I remember going into the city and seeing all the missing persons handbills posted just everywhere. And the pile itself and its smell.

  12. By the way I have seen that poster at the airport in Maui. I believe it was signed by all the TSA workers there. Still have mixed feelings about TSA. Can’t say they have caught anyone, yet clearly you can’t have zero. Surprised they have not tried again. I guess we took the war over there.
    Remember the insanity of early TSA days? Expensive bottles of perfume going into the trash? The great pointy object search? I think Homeland is still building their new headquarters complex in DC, right?

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