September 11, 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. PHL airport and airline employees share their memories of that day and reflect on how it changed the aviation industry.
Initial Reaction and Actions
PHL CEO Chellie Cameron was working for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) as a manager of financial management for Dulles International Airport (IAD) on September 11, 2001. She recalls the day began like any other workday and was in the middle of a meeting when an colleague knocked on her office door and told her to go to the break room. The attacks on the World Trade Center were unfolding live on TV. “Like anyone else, we couldn’t believe what we saw. It didn’t seem real,” she said.
Cameron’s office was located in a building on the Dulles campus. “All of our airport leadership was at the Airports Council International (ACI) conference in Canada, so my boss jumped into action.”
After finding out about the attack on the Pentagon, Cameron and airport officials were afraid that Dulles and MWAA’s Reagan National Airport (DCA) would also be targeted. “We mobilized buses and got everyone out of the terminals and sent them to the nearby Convention Center for their safety.”
MWAA then locked down everything in the airport. “There was a flurry of activity. I remember cell phones not working—everything was jammed up so you couldn’t get through on cell phones. It was only those that had a walkie talkie feature or an airport radio, which I had, that were able to communicate with others,” said Cameron. “The emergency networks worked, but normal cell phones did not. I remember taking a moment and thinking, ‘Oh My God, I need to call my mother!’ I tried to find a phone to call home but couldn’t get through for a couple of hours.”
Chief Operating Officer Keith Brune and Compliance Training Superintendent John Glass were both airport operations superintendents at PHL on 9/11. “I knew at that time that our world had changed. We had a series of meetings and made sure we secured all the aircraft on the ground,” said Brune. “As a team, we worked together to take care of the passengers who were distraught and concerned. We were trying to process what it would mean for us and the industry.”
Joe Messina, senior advisor to PHL executive team, was the Divisional Deputy City Solicitor for the airport at the time. “It was an eerie atmosphere at the airport all the planes were on the ground, nothing was moving on the airfield all the terminals were completely empty,” he said. “It was the first time I ever experienced that kind of stillness at an airport, and it was like that for the next two days. No one knew if there would be follow-up attacks.” He recalls watching the events at the World Trade Center from the office of PHL’s chief of staff in the lower-level Terminal E Executive Offices.
PHL’s Operations team collaborated with Airport Police to conduct security sweeps of the entire facility. Senior leadership also met with the airline’s on-site station managers. “We made sure our terminals were secure and met with federal agencies about what the next step would be. It was a very long day, followed by even more long days,” said Brune.
PHL played an essential role in helping New York City’s hospitals receive medical supplies and blood after the FAA ordered the U.S. National Airspace System (NAS) to close.
“After the airspace closed and planes were not allowed to fly, they were using Philadelphia and other airports to get medical supplies and blood up to New York. The American Red Cross and other blood banks had small airplanes flown up here with special FAA authorization, and their equipment was loaded onto tractor trailers and trucked up to New York City,” said Glass. “FedEx allowed their trucks to be loaded with medical supplies. Everyone was working together. We were one of the closest airports to New York City, and time was of the essence. We did our part by helping get equipment on the field, off the field, and helping to park airplanes.”
A couple of months after 9/11, Brune became PHL’s operations manager and played an integral role with the transition from FAA security to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). “We worked closely with all of our airlines and federal organizations to create processes and changes to our security plan to try to meet our evolving needs,” he said.
DCA remained closed for weeks after 9/11 because of its proximity to Washington D.C. “After places like Dulles and PHL were opening, Regan National stayed completely shut down. We weren’t sure if National would ever open again. We made a lot of decisions and took a lot of actions to really control our costs,” said Cameron.
Cameron recalls how the atmosphere of the city itself felt different at the time. “There was a cloud of fear and uncertainty that settled over Washington D.C. for a period of time because no one knew what was coming next. We were redoing how security checkpoints worked, and we had to take away all the knives and scissors from the concessions,” she said.
Similarly at PHL, Chief Revenue Officer Jim Tyrrell (then deputy director of property management) recalled “When we reopened there were no knives allowed; no weapons of any kind. Even a store selling golf clubs was unable to sell them because they could be used as a weapon. The knives that had to be used in the kitchens had to be inventoried and accounted for every day to ensure they were in their place. Passengers were not allowed to use knives, they had to use plastic silverware.”
Who They Knew
One of the flights that went down that day took off from IAD. Los Angeles-bound American Airlines Flight 77 carried someone Cameron knew personally, Mary Jane (MJ) Booth, a secretary for Dulles’ American Airlines station manager. “You know how there’s always someone at the airport who knows everybody and always knows what’s going on? Well, she was that person, and she was just amazing," said Cameron. "It still chokes me up today to think about how she was going to see family in California, and she never made it. It was a really emotional day.”
Some PHL members knew people who lost their lives in the 9/11 attacks. “My friends’ father, Fred V. Morrone, was killed on that day. He was the public safety director at the New York/New Jersey Port Authority,” said Glass. “Another friend of mine who I grew up with and have known all my life worked on Wall Street and was in NYC that day. He still deals with PTSD til this day.”
American Airlines Crew Chief Sandy Niedermair, who worked as a utility lead for US Airways at the time knew one of the pilots on the United Flight 93 that crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. “Captain Leroy Homer was a close personal friend to my family," Niedermair said. "He was in the Air Force with my brother and attended my brother’s wedding. He was like a big bother to me.” Every year in September, Sandy and her husband, Eric (also a US Airways employee on September 11) set up a 9/11 memorial outside of their home with special recognition to Homer. The memorial also includes American and United Airlines model crafts along with American flags and other decorations.
“One of my favorite high school teachers and his wife were also on United Flight 93,” said PHL Deputy Director of Airport Procurement Deatrice Issac. “Their children lost both of their parents in one day. It was just devastating.”
Impact On PHL
Following 9/11, stricter security policies and procedures were put in place at airports across the country. “We were about to open Terminal A-West, but it was delayed for a year. We had to install a full inline baggage handling system,” said Brune.
When PHL opened the B/C Connector in June of 1998 the properties department had a long term plan to invite the public and the larger community to experience the concessions program. However, after 9/11, that idea was no longer feasible.
“The airport used to have a lot of visitors. They were meeters and greeters who came to the airport because it was an exciting place to be. We used to have an observation deck where people could come and watch planes take off and land,” said Tyrrell. “There were a lot of facilities that were on what we now call the non-secure side of the airport so that people from the neighborhoods could visit. After 9/11, there was a strong security boundary created, and most, if not all, of our concessions are on the secure side now. It eliminated the public’s ability to participate in things at the airport.”
With access to the news in the palm of our hands in today’s world it’s hard to recall a time where people relied on hard copies of newspapers for news. “At that time, we had a lot of newspaper honor boxes at the airport, where you would place a quarter in the box, and you would take out your newspaper,” said Messina. “Our police were concerned that people would be able to place a bomb or other device in them.” Eventually, PHL removed all honor boxes to maintain a sense of safety and security. PHL agreed to carry the newspapers at the airport concessions.
Impact On First Responders
Thanks to mutual aid agreements, MWAA had firefighters from IAD and DCA who fought fires and made rescue efforts at the Pentagon. “At a moment’s notice, they were willing to put their lives on the line to save others. That’s the kind of thing that gives you hope in humanity, that people are willing to help,” said Cameron. “I think we should never forget what they did, and we should always take care of them.”
The fear was real for all first responders in New York City and across the country. “First responders are heroes. When a bad thing happens, they are the people that run towards it,” said Brune. “The firefighters and police officers, their goal is to help. I have the utmost respect for them, and I feel so blessed to know we have people like that in the world.”
Likewise, Messina commended PHL’s first responders. “Police officers, firefighters, municipal services employees and all departments who stepped up to the plate are all brave people,” he said. "When it would’ve been easy to go home and protect their families, they were here in the terminals and at City Hall to secure the buildings.”
Impact On Airline Employees
After 9/11, airlines furloughed thousands of employees due to less traveling from a frightened public. Less demand for flights led to fewer routes and fewer employees that were required to report to work.
GAT Airline Ground Support PHL General Manager Eric Staples dabbled in a series of odd jobs after being furloughed by US Airways in 2001. “I’d already fallen in love with the airlines and with aviation. I never stopped trying to get back,” he said. “When I had a recruiter reach out to me in 2006 with an opportunity to return to US Airways in a leadership role, I jumped at it. There is nothing more fun, more maddening, and more rewarding than this work.”
The Niedermairs were working at DCA on 9/11. “As the next days and weeks passed, we learned our station at DCA would be closed indefinitely,” said Eric. “During the shutdown, we were in limbo about our jobs and our next paychecks. One agency that helped tremendously was The Salvation Army of Baltimore.” On October 26, 2001, US Airways transferred the Niedermairs to PHL. Eric is now a ramp supervisor for American Airlines and Sandy, in addition to her role as crew chief, is also a grievance committeeperson representing American’s Maintenance Department.
20 Years Later
It’s been two decades since the 9/11 attacks. The passage of time may feel surreal but has given leaders time to reflect.
“We’ve made a lot of advancements, we’re clearly safer now then we were before,” said Brune. “The fact that people are thinking of security and reporting suspicious items is a big deal.
“Twenty years is a long time. It’s good for us to stop and pause for a minute and remember what it was like and how far we’ve come,” said Cameron. “We’ve done somethings better and there are things that we still need to improve. September 11 changed the aviation industry forever. We’re in the middle of one of those moments right now with the COVID-19 pandemic. These are times you live through and you learn. You’ve got to stop and reflect on how far you’ve come and how far you still need to go.”