The Day That Changed The World – 20 Years On

How the events of September 11, 2001 changed the airline industry on both sides of the Atlantic.

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September 11, 2001

“21st Century Air Travel”

The airline industry, like much of the world, entered the 21st century with a sense of optimism.

Here in the UK, BA had become somewhat bruised in the late 1990s by the adverse reaction to the World Tailfins and rising competition from low cost airlines.

Under the new leadership of Rod Eddington and the theme of “21st century air travel” the airline had planned significant investment with a new World Traveller Plus cabin and revamped cabins in Club World, First Class and on Concorde.

Virgin Atlantic – now well into its teenage years – was firmly ensconced at London Heathrow. It had signed up as a launch customer for 6 Airbus A380 aircraft with “industry sources” touting the prospect of casinos and gyms on board a “flying hotel”. The airline was expanding to India with its first route to Delhi, and taking delivery of new Airbus A340 and Boeing 747-400 aircraft.

The Day That Changed The World

One day changed everything.

The facts of the single worst day in civil aviation history are well known.

At 07:59 Eastern Time on Tuesday September 11 2001, an American Airlines Boeing 767 aircraft operating as Flight AA11 departed Boston Logan International airport, bound for Los Angeles. The Captain was John Ogonowski and First Officer was Thomas McGuinness. 9 Flight Attendants and 81 passengers were on board the aircraft. The aircraft was hijacked. At 08:46 it crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in Manhattan.

At 07:58, a United Airlines Boeing 767 aircraft operating as Flight UA175 also departed Boston for Los Angeles. The Captain was Victor J Saracini and First Officer was Michael Horrocks. 7 Flight Attendants and 56 passengers were on board the aircraft. The aircraft was hijacked. At 09:03 it crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

Two other aircraft were hijacked. An American Airlines Boeing 757 aircraft, operating as Flight AA77 from Washington Dulles to Los Angeles crashed into the Pentagon at 09:45.

A United Airlines Boeing 757 from Newark to San Francisco, operating as Flight UA93, with seven crew members and 37 passengers crashed near Somerset County, Pennsylvania.

The Guardian, Europe Edition Front Page, Wednesday 12 September 2001
The Times, Europe Edition Front Page, Wednesday 12 September 2001

The Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) immediately shut down all US airspace to civilian flights. Around 22 BA aircraft diverted to Canada or turned back to London. Flights to Islamabad and Tel Aviv were also cancelled.

In the UK, all private flights were banned from operating without specific permission. An air exclusion zone below 3,000 feet was imposed from Tower Bridge to Kensington Palace. Scheduled passenger flights were allowed to depart the UK, provided they met security requirements.

The Skies Reopen

US airspace gradually reopened to civilian flights on Thursday 13 September.

All non-US airlines were banned from flying to the US until they could satisfy they met FAA security requirements. Alitalia and TAP Air Portugual were forced by the FAA to turn back flights bound for New York to Rome and Lisbon. BA subsequently secured approval on Saturday 15 September.

The immediate response from the industry was that air travel would never be the same. US airline passengers could never again take for granted the freedom of its large post deregulation domestic market. Some even questioned whether airports would have to be rebuilt to accommodate additional passenger screening facilities. Airlines on both sides of the Atlantic required state support to ensure they had sufficient insurance cover for their aircraft to operate flights.

Immediate security measures in the US included stopping check in curbside and outside of the airport; restricting access to departures areas to ticketed passengers only – unlike Europe it was possible to go through security without a ticket – and banning knives on board aircraft. BA and Virgin both fitted reinforced cockpit doors to their aircraft which had to remain locked throughout the flight.

There was a heightened state of alert. Evacuations of terminal buildings at US airports became commonplace.

Two US bound Virgin Atlantic flights in the following days were forced to divert to Canada. On Monday 17 September 2001, a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 bound for New York JFK diverted to Goose Bay airport after a bomb threat was received. On Saturday 22 September 2001, another Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 bound for Los Angeles made an emergency landing in Edmonton after a member of cabin crew discovered a mobile phone that had slipped behind a passenger seat.

The loss of confidence in flying had a significant impact with American Airlines and United Airlines announcing the following week they would lay off 40,000 employees.

In the years that followed US airports were almost deserted on the anniversary of the attacks.

“Future Size & Shape”

Immediately after September 11 2001, Virgin Atlantic quickly retrenched, grounding five aircraft, suspending routes to Athens, Chicago O’Hare and Toronto and announcing 1,200 job losses.

BA subsequently announced a review of its business known as “Future Size & Shape”.

This resulted in a substantial cut in capacity, thousands of job losses, and numerous cost-cutting initiatives – many of which did not go unnoticed by passengers. 

Some projects that were already underway such as improving profitability at Gatwick, opting for smaller capacity Boeing 777 and Airbus A320 aircraft were accelerated. Many long haul routes were suspended such as Manila and Taipei.

This set the course for BA the rest of the decade with a focus on improving its balance sheet by selling its 25% stake in Qantas and disposing of regional operations, simplifying its aircraft fleet, removing legacy complexity and no significant capacity growth.

Elsewhere in Europe, Sabena and Swissair – which both had significant troubles long before September 11 2001 – subsequently collapsed.

“It’s Better To Be There”

Some months after September 11 2001, BA sought to encourage passengers, specfically those travelling for business, to fly again.

One such example was a TV advertising campaign “It’s Better To Be There” from early 2002. 

An American businessman is featured receiving pitches from British businesses: one despatches its proposal by post and conducts the pitch by telephone. As the businessman promises to give it due consideration a rival team walks into to conduct their pitch face to face.

20 Years On

20 years on after September 11 2001, its geopolitical consequences are being felt.

Predictions that air travel would never be the same again did not come to pass. Airlines and passengers adapted to new security measures – as they did to other emerging security measures in the following years.

From a pure financial perspective, airlines looked with envy at Ryanair which in January 2002 was able to secure an order for 100 Boeing 737 aircraft – more than double the size of its fleet at the time – at an “exceptionally competitive” price.

Many airline leaders preached that the industry must be able to withstand future shocks without the need for state intervention and industry consolidation was the means to achieve this. Those airlines still under partial state ownership would soon join in.

Today, airlines face a much more prolonged crisis of a very different origin through COVID-19. Whilst airlines and passengers will no doubt adapt to changing procedures some of which will stay post COVID-19, the industry has required substantial state support through loans and employee wage guarantee schemes. Whether the industry will emerge from this crisis with existing private sector ownership structures and orthodoxy in tact remains to be seen.

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