20 Years On, Aviation Reflects on Lessons Learned from 9/11

by | Sep 13, 2021 | Airlines, News

On the day of the attacks, I was in New Orleans attending the Air Carriers Purchasing Conference (ACPC). I will never forget the surreal nature of watching the events on the television of my hotel room that morning, then going downstairs to meet hundreds of my colleagues from the industry, all of whom were equally shocked and dazed. Meetings were cancelled as we all gathered to watch what was happening, unable to stop it or accept it as real. But it was much too horribly real.

By the afternoon, all focus turned to getting out of New Orleans and finding our way back to our respective offices to get to work on crisis management and recovery. It wasn’t easy since airline industry representatives from around the world were unable to fly back home. Everyone came together to help each other, arranging buses and rideshares. It took a couple of days to find one, but I finally rented a car and brought two airline clients to our headquarters in Miami, where they waited for clearance to fly back home.

We all knew the world and the airline industry had changed forever. We just didn’t know what shape that change would take.

In an official statement, IATA’s Director General, Willie Walsh, reflects on the impact on the airline industry of the 9/11 attacks and how it compares to today’s COVID-19 crisis, as well as to the devastating effects of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008.

“On September 11, 2001, the world changed forever. Those of us old enough to understand what was happening at the time still remember where we were when we heard the horrific news. Indeed, for many, it probably still feels like yesterday. At a time when the world’s attention is focused on emerging from COVID-19, and the devastation it has caused, commemorating the tragic events of 9/11 is crucially important. We must continue to give the families and loved ones of the victims, and the victims themselves, the recognition and acknowledgement they deserve, while drawing inspiration from the heroes that day, the first responders who made the ultimate sacrifice and the passengers and crew of United Airlines flight 93 who disrupted the final attack with little hope for their own survival.

“The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were not only assaults on the United States of America, they also were aimed at the global air transportation system—a facilitator of peace and freedom.

“Two decades later, we are still living with their consequences, including a vastly expanded security and intelligence apparatus that overlays air travel. This is most visible at airport security checkpoints, although arguably the most intrusive post-9/11 changes—removing shoes at checkpoints, taking laptops and liquids out of carry-on bags and strict limits on liquids and gels in carry-on bags—are the result of subsequent, compounding terrorist plots against civil aviation.

“From an economic perspective, 9/11 unleashed a tidal wave of financial devastation on the industry. US airlines bore the brunt of this in the immediate aftermath, but the aftershocks and then the 2003 SARS outbreak, combined with the renewed concerns over terrorism during and after the US-led invasion of Iraq that year, extended the crisis for many airlines. After a few years of recovery, the Global Financial Crisis arrived in 2008- 09 to wreak further havoc.

“Of course, the damage done by both these crises is but a drop in the bucket compared to the impact of COVID- 19. Government-enacted border closures and travel restrictions in attempts to slow the spread of the disease, brought the industry to a near standstill in April 2020. And 18 months later, international traffic remains at a quarter of pre-crisis levels. As we look back on these previous crises, what have we learned?

“An important lesson is to move beyond the one-size-fits-all, rules-based model that still, with some notable exceptions, such as TSA Pre-check, governs passenger security screening. We also learned that efficiency is improved by establishing trust with a known community of travellers and by applying security measures based on the low risk presented by the majority of travellers. And a further lesson is to establish firm deadlines at which these extraordinary measures expire and require regulators to take formal action to extend them. This ensures that what we are doing is relevant.

“There are some timely parallels in these lessons to the challenges aviation faces today with COVID-19. Translated to the current environment, this could mean things such as exempting vaccinated travellers from testing and quarantine requirements, and opening borders based on risk measurements. If the risk of transmission is higher in Country A than in Country B, there is really no reason for Country A to bar vaccinated travellers from Country B from visiting. And we must make sure that the COVID-19 measures are in place no longer than they are necessary.

“The story of the next 20 years ought to be about governments’ and industry’s ability to share and respond to new risks that are inherently integrated by nature or design. Sadly, that lesson has not been learned in terms of governments’ response to COVID-19 and the way health measures are being imposed upon civil aviation without considered consultation.”

Walsh suggests that the industry can stay ahead of threats through “a more integrated approach on things like cyber risks, drones and insider threats.” He also emphasizes the importance of having controls in place for business continuity regardless of the nature of the threat.

There is a parallel between the crisis aviation faces today (with unclear government policies on border re-opening and mixed rules on acceptance of health information and vaccine certificates) and the damaging mixed government response to the PED (personal electronic device) threat of 2017. That event highlighted how essential it is for governments to coordinate when they enact policies that affect global aviation.

“Governments have a responsibility to respond to threats as they appear. They won’t always have time for full coordination during the very immediate crisis period,” Walsh says. “That was the case with the PED threat in 2017. However, coordination needs to happen as soon as it is practically possible. And we have seen in the intervening years since the PEDs ban, a recognition that these events can be handled better. We have observed a greater willingness on the parts of some key governments to engage with industry and seek industry expertise on how measures can be effectively applied with the minimum disruption to passengers and processes. It is also critical for governments to ensure countermeasures are still relevant. The measures around liquids and gels were introduced in 2007. How many governments have gone back and looked at whether they are still relevant?”

Such policy coordination requires governments to look at the world as a whole entity, an interdependent network of nations whose mutual best interest is served through cooperation.

Over the past twenty years, globalization seems to me to have shifted from a generally accepted goal to a somewhat mistrusted notion. Aviation, which depends entirely on a global framework for its long-term success, can only suffer from this shift in thinking. The legacy of the 9/11 attacks should not be that the noble aim of a unified, collaborative, open and modern world is abandoned entirely. That’s what the terrorists wanted. That’s why they did it. We cannot let it come to pass.