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Forward From 15: Stuck in Montreal


On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was listening to Canadian transport minister David Collenette address the Airports Council International-North America Conference and Exhibition at the Montreal convention center. Nearly every major airport director in North America was there. Suddenly, and without explanation, Collenette stopped speaking and stepped back from the podium to start a conversation on his cell phone.

“Someone brought a note to the podium and said, please wind up quickly, there’s been a tragedy,” Collenette later recalled for a CBC documentary on Canadian officials’ actions on 9/11. He had already suspected something was amiss—there was murmuring in the crowd while he was speaking.

David Plavin, ACI-NA’s president, stepped to the podium to make a shocking announcement: an aircraft had struck one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City. A shaken Plavin announced the ACI-NA conference was being temporarily suspended, adding that large television screens were being set up in the convention center to allow conference attendees to watch news coverage of the unfolding events in the US.

A short time later, I wandered down to the conference’s exhibition hall, where I found two men at a booth watching a monitor showing smoke billowing from a building. But the building was not a skyscraper.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“That’s the Pentagon,” came the reply.

“But I thought the World Trade Center had been hit,” I said.

“I don’t know what’s going on, but that’s the Pentagon on fire,” the man responded, pointing at the screen.

It’s hard to overstate the bewildering feeling at about 9:45 a.m. on that morning. Had the World Trade Center or the Pentagon been hit? Actually, both of the WTC Twin Towers and the Pentagon had been hit by commercial jets. It was about that time that FAA shut down US airspace, ordering all aircraft in the sky to land, all aircraft on the ground to stay put and, quite significantly for Canada, all aircraft en route to the US not to enter US airspace.

Collenette quickly made his way from the convention center to a van, which he directed be driven straight to Ottawa rather than the airport, figuring that would be his fastest way back to the Canadian capital. Collenette told CBC that “key decisions were taken on Highway 417” that morning as he raced back to Ottawa with a cell phone pressed to his ear.

First, he decided to follow FAA and close Canadian airspace. But there was a problem: more than 200 US-bound transatlantic flights were in the air and too far along to return to Europe. The US was adamant that none of those aircraft would enter US airspace.

Canada agreed to let those aircraft land on its soil, but the Canadian transport minister was terrified that one of the aircraft flying across the Atlantic would take aim at a building in Toronto or Montreal. So Collenette ordered all of the transatlantic flights to land at smaller, remote eastern Canadian airports, which quickly became clogged with large passenger aircraft. “I don’t think that 226 widebody jets have ever been landed in such a short time frame, ever in history,” Collenette told CBC.

The scene back at the Montreal convention center was somewhat chaotic. I and other reporters tried to get information from the airport directors attending the conference, but most of them confessed they did not know much more than what was being said on the giant TV screens. It is one of the forgotten aspects of 9/11 that the massive and unprecedented ground stop at all US and Canadian airports occurred as the directors of those airports were stuck in Montreal.

Cell phone service, particularly from Canada back to the US, was very spotty on 9/11. I remember how frustrated many of the airport directors were as they tried to get in touch with their airport staffs back home. With no flights available, airport directors started hatching plans to rent cars and head for the border. Some cars filled with three or four US airport directors were making their way back to the US by the afternoon of 9/11.

I ended up in Montreal for several more days; even though US airspace reopened on Sept. 13, flights back to the Washington DC area—and especially to National Airport, from where I had departed and which remained closed for more than three weeks after 9/11—were nearly impossible to find. I stood in a long line at Central Station in Montreal, where I booked a train ticket home to DC.

It was a 14-hour train trip, which included a lengthy stop at the US-Canadian border for the train to be thoroughly searched by bomb-sniffing canines. I switched trains at Penn Station in New York City, and will never forget looking out the window at a darkened Big Apple, with smoke hanging in the sky, as the Amtrak train pulled away from New York.

Creating TSA

The ACI-NA conference never restarted. But I do remember lots of discussion about airport security among the delegates who remained in Montreal. I then spent many days in the weeks after 9/11 on a somber Capitol Hill, covering the Congressional debate over what do about aviation security, which was being run by private firms regulated by FAA.

It is not well remembered now, but there was no consensus on creating the Transportation Security Administration. There was a sizable contingent, particularly in the House of Representatives, who wanted to keep airport security privatized.

November arrived with no aviation security legislation from Congress. And then on Nov. 12, an American Airlines Airbus A300-600 crashed in Queens shortly after takeoff from New York JFK, killing all 260 on board and five more people on the ground. The US National Transportation Safety Board eventually concluded that pilot error caused the crash, but at the time it was widely speculated a terrorist bomb had been involved.

Panic set in on Capitol Hill. There was now the prospect of lawmakers going home for the first post-9/11 Thanksgiving holiday having done nothing on aviation security—even after another major, unexplained airliner crash in New York City. Congressional staff began literally working around the clock to finalize the language of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001. After two months of debate and wrangling, the legislation was completed and passed in a rush, and quickly signed into law by President George W. Bush on Nov. 19, 2001.

I have often thought the hasty crafting of the legislation that created TSA caused much of the frustration with the agency over the ensuing years. If it looked like TSA was not well thought out, well, that’s because it wasn’t.

TSA stood up a security apparatus designed specifically to prevent another 9/11. This meant an endless search for specific objects (such as box cutters) carried by random passengers. If you flew enough out of National, as I did in the years after 9/11, you would see cabinet secretaries and members of Congress holding their beltless pants up as they shuffled through metal detectors. You can admire the egalitarian nature of this, but using resources to screen US senators on the off chance they are secretly al Qaeda is symbolic of the mindless nature of TSA in its early years.

That it took a decade for TSA to develop the Pre-Check expedited screening program—which intelligently shrinks the pool of suspect passengers—is an indictment of the agency and the legislators who created it. The long lines of passengers at US airport security checkpoints this past spring—and the Brussels and Istanbul airport bombings—indicate TSA and airport security globally still need some serious rethinking. Fifteen years after 9/11, and we’re still debating the right way to do airport security.

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What's AirKarp?

Aviation Daily Editor in Chief's blog

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