Remembering 9/11 Twenty 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.

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 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.

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. I’m on a United flight back to the US right now. They announced a moment of silence at 9:02 and my first reaction was to be incredibly angry and disappointed, and that’s not right.

    I had coworkers on a plane that departed Boston that morning, and we didn’t know for hours which flights had been hijacked. They were safe, but others I knew were not.

    But what was a genuine tragedy for New York City and those directly affected was, within a day, co-opted by a nascent fascist movement to start a global race war killing hundreds of thousands, and funneling trillions of dollars to them and their cronies.

    So much of the memorial efforts are so deeply linked to the hate and destruction used as an excuse to take over our government they I don’t know how to separate the two.

  2. People are still trying to come to terms with it. I wish there was more understanding of why this terrible thing happened though. That’s rarely discussed and without looking hard at the causes we as a nation cannot get past the effects. And just seeing the effects has led to some terrible decisions. And those we’ve made at home and abroad will haunt us for a long time. You are welcome to disagree but in some ways it seems this is shaping up to be bin Laden’s century.

  3. The war didn’t begin on 9/11, we were at war long before that, we just didn’t know it. But the other side did. Try reading Lawrence Wright’s excellent “The Looming Tower” for an understanding beyond memes and mainstream headlines. Maybe you won’t agree with it, but you can’t claim you understand the situation now or 20 years ago with reading it or something equivalent. If you can’t tell me you know the name Sayyid Qutb and what he stood for, your opinion means nothing, it’s just the usual internet blather.

  4. I appreciate Gary providing a personal remembrance of that terrible day, and my heartfelt sympathies go out to all the victims. And it’s very touching that they all seem to be remembered by loved ones even as the world has made 20 orbits around the sun since.

    At the same time, I’m happy to see from the comments above that many readers here feel similar to myself – that 09/11 was an opportunity to turn around and do something constructive. But instead, the political leadership made it a revenge thing, and the enormous world sympathy that was there on day zero was largely squandered in just six months.

    Fast-forwarding to today and the current situation for airlines, it is just unbelievable how governments around the world continue senseless border restrictions that destroy so many peoples’ livelihoods and keeps so many families apart. I find it interesting that countries that normally are rational and well-organized, such as Japan or Singapore, once they encounter a major unexpected contingency, they simply don’t know what to do and respond haphazardly and irrationally.

  5. What really needs to be told: What motivated Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 hijackers in the first place? Why did they think they needed to attack the US, not only on that day, but in 1998 with the two embassies in Africa, and in 1993 when they tried to take down the World Trade Center the first time? And a number of times before that? And why didn’t we recognize that and see the pattern that was developing?

  6. For the first time that day America reaped what it had sown. For the decades before the USA had encouraged Islamic extremism, given its Saudi masters carte Blanche to spread their hate filled brand of Islam, and when the soviets left your country abandoned Afghanistan.
    Of course it’s never the leaders who did all this who die. It’s innocent citizens.

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