On Sept. 8, 2001, Bill Wyatt made a long-awaited journey to Lisbon, Portugal, boarding a series of flights that were primarily secured by a quick stroll through a metal detector.
The ease and speed of crossing the line that separated passengers from their awaiting commercial aircraft was reflective of a time in which no one had stopped to seriously consider how a 90-ton plane, packed with 50 tons of explosively combustible fuel, might be commandeered and used as a weapon.
Wyatt was on a trip with cause to celebrate, having found out only days earlier that he’d scored his dream job and would soon become the next executive director of the Port of Portland, a sprawling operation in and around Oregon’s biggest city that includes four marine terminals, two general aviation airports and the Portland International Airport.
A few days later, he and friends had just finished touring an ancient church outside of the Portuguese capital and were at a nearby business. They noticed images of a burning building on TV during a break-in Portuguese news report and, with no one there to interpret, tried to make sense of what they were seeing and what was going on.
“We just saw images of a tall building with flames coming out of it,” Wyatt recalled. “It was dystopian and, without any English speakers nearby, we struggled to figure out what was going on.”
Wyatt slipped out to make a phone call. While he was due to start his new airport gig in a few weeks, he was still on active duty at the time as the chief of staff for Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber. If anyone could fill him in on what was happening back in the U.S., he was sure it would be his office.
“Details were still sparse, but it was clear we were under attack,” Wyatt, now the head of Salt Lake’s international airport, said. “I learned that my boss, the governor, had been escorted by state police to an undisclosed location.”
Salt Lake City
Dave Korzep was on a golf course with a group of air traffic controllers from the Salt Lake City International Airport when news of a plane hitting the north tower of New York’s World Trade Center broke. At the time, he was freshly into a new job as supervisor of airport operations at the Salt Lake facility. The initial news read as a tragic accident to Korzep and his group. What came next changed their perspective dramatically.
“The first thing we heard was a plane had just hit the Trade Center and I thought, ‘What a horrible accident,’” Korzep said. “Just a few minutes later, we found out another airliner had just hit the other tower. And then I just raced to work.”
Over the summer of 2001, a new U.S. airline that had launched a year earlier was the talk of the industry. The disruption, and associated chatter, was thanks to the startup’s unlikely combination of brand-new planes with cushy leather upholstery and seat-back TV’s for all passengers, along with discount fares and a customer-friendly approach to running the business.
JetBlue co-founder and CEO David Neeleman, born in Brazil but raised in Utah and already an airline startup veteran, was at JetBlue’s headquarters in the New York City borough of Queens when the attacks began.
“We could see the towers from the roof of our office,” Neeleman said. “We saw the buildings burning … and then we saw them go down. It was horrific.”
A few hours later the true toll of the attacks would come into sharper focus. Four passenger planes were taken over and crashed that morning, including one flown into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and another that crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after passengers and crew fought back against the attackers.
The careers of Wyatt, Korzep and Neeleman, and the airline industry in which they worked, would never be the same again.
Two months after the attacks, then-President George W. Bush signed legislation creating the Transportation Security Administration, a force of federal airport screeners that replaced the private companies that airlines were hiring to handle security. The law required that all checked bags be screened, cockpit doors be reinforced and more federal air marshals be put on flights.
Security measures evolved with new threats, and so travelers were asked to take off belts and remove some items from bags for scanning. Things that clearly could be wielded as weapons, like the box cutters used by the 9/11 hijackers, were banned. After “shoe bomber” Richard Reid’s attempt to take down a flight from Paris to Miami in late 2001, footwear started coming off at security checkpoints.
Each new requirement seemed to make checkpoint lines longer, forcing passengers to arrive at the airport earlier if they wanted to make their flights. To many travelers, other rules were more mystifying, such as limits on liquids because the wrong ones could possibly be used to concoct a bomb.
“It’s a much bigger hassle than it was before 9/11 — much bigger — but we have gotten used to it,” Ronald Briggs told The Associated Press as he and his wife, Jeanne, waited at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport for a flight to London in July. The north Texas retirees, who traveled frequently before the pandemic, said they are more worried about COVID-19 than terrorism.
“The point about taking shoes off because of one incident on a plane seems somewhat on the extreme side,” Ronald Briggs said, “but the (TSA’s PreCheck pre-screening program) works pretty smoothly, and I’ve learned to use a plastic belt so I don’t have to take it off.”
While passenger-side efficiencies have transformed dramatically since the attacks, and hourslong passenger lines at security checkpoints are no longer the norm at most U.S. airports, the changes made on the operation side of commercial air travel are no less significant.
Behind the scenes
Wyatt would take over as the top executive at Portland International Airport and guide that facility and the other Port of Portland operations for 16 years before being selected for the top post at Salt Lake City International in 2017. Salt Lake’s airport was in the midst of a monster rebuild project that had to account for a number of new security protocols, including the equipment to scan every checked piece of passenger luggage, a post-9/11 security requirement mandated by federal authorities.
Wyatt said the baggage moving/scanning system housed in the first phase of the new airport includes 6 miles of conveyor belts.
“It’s a huge installation,” Wyatt said. “We joke that the in-line bag screening system was designed first and then we figured out how to build an airport around it.”
Wyatt said the 9/11 attacks led to a fundamental and fast-moving reassessment of necessary airport security protocols, including formation of the TSA in November 2001, which took over all aspects of airport security from the Federal Aviation Administration. Wyatt said Salt Lake’s airport features a host of new technology, including an automated bin system, new full-body scanners and a crowd management system that keeps people moving through security checkpoints without sacrificing thoroughness.
Korzep said once-hectic Salt Lake City International Airport was “eerily silent” in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, following an unprecedented federal order to ground over 4,000 flights in U.S. airspace on 9/11 and a four-day closure that commenced after all those planes had landed.
And the earliest iteration of post-attack airport security was, Korzep said, a chilling scenario.
“Immediately afterwards, we had the National Guard out here patrolling the airport with automatic weapons,” Korzep. “And, soon after we saw new levels of federal management and oversight of airport security operations with the birth of the TSA and, later, the Department of Homeland Security.
“Everything just emanated from that day.”
Neeleman said his company was focused on following federal directions in getting planes safely on the ground and aiding thousands of passengers stranded far from their destinations on the day of the attacks. Then, the fledgling company got proactive on behalf of a traveling public that had become instantly, and understandably, apprehensive about returning to the skies.
“It immediately changed the mindset of passengers … and my thoughts at the time were focused on this issue — no one wants to fly,” Neeleman said. “And, especially on planes with paper-mache cockpit doors that anyone could kick in.”
Neeleman consulted with a carrier that had already equipped its planes with armored doors, Israel’s El Al Airlines, and got to work on a solution. Within weeks, Neeleman said, JetBlue had designed a door with a bulletproof Kevlar lining and titanium deadbolts that would be virtually impervious to a forced intrusion attempt. His airline would be among the first in the U.S. to get them installed on their planes, well ahead of a TSA order that went out in January 2002.
Neeleman said the effort was about working to restore passenger confidence, as well as the right decision for the only U.S airlines that was headquartered in the city that suffered the worst losses on 9/11.
“We tried to recognize the feelings that every passenger was having, that we’re all on this plane together and you just feel helpless if someone can go through the door, kill the pilots and take over the plane,” Neeleman said. “And, as New York City’s hometown airlines, it just underscored our duty to do everything we could to make planes safer.”
As security apparatus, on both sides of U.S. airport operations continue to evolve, Wyatt, Korzep and Neeleman all noted the excellent safety records of flights in and out of U.S. airports in the last two decades. All three men also concede that there are no perfect systems and no measures that are capable of detecting all threats related to commercial airline travel. But it’s a system that, so far, has prevented any recurrence, or replication, of the attacks that happened 20 years ago.
“There was a fair amount of talk, and pessimism, about what the future of commercial aviation was going to be after the events of 9/11,” Wyatt said. “But, right now, the future has almost never looked this bright. And this is because the airlines, the federal agencies and the rest of us in this business have figured out how to move ahead in such extreme circumstances. It’s been incredibly complicated, challenging and expensive, but we collectively did it.
“And, to me, that is a really hopeful sign.”
Contributing: Associated Press