Airborne terror attacks shatter American aviation

 - October 8, 2007, 7:44 AM

The tragedy of September 11, 2001, began with what is arguably the most far-reaching aviation event since the Enola Gay released its burden over Hiroshima. That moment, 56 years ago, defined the onset of a new era, an age overshadowed by the specter of global thermonuclear war, and life was never the same.

As the shock of the hijackings and death and destruction in New York City, Washington and rural Pennsylvania begins its slow fade, it is replaced by the sad realization that the liberty of our everyday lives is threatened, and access to those spacious skies can never again be as free as we have become accustomed to.

As chronicled in this special report on the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, a lockdown of all civil aviation was initiated swiftly after the nation’s leaders realized what was happening. Business aviation crews and passengers were stranded with no less inconvenience than their airline counterparts, but the frustrations of the small-jet set were longer lived. As the slow process of opening the skies began on Thursday, September 13, Part 91 operators had to keep their wings folded while airliners and Part 135 charter jets were released. There was resentment, and NBAA once more fulfilled its role as a unifying force while simultaneously working diligently to get business aircraft flying again.

The inconveniences paled in comparison with what had happened in the Northeast. For ground-bound pilots, it was perhaps hardest to comprehend that this all began with the images of those graceful, hurtling Boeings slicing into the towers of the World Trade Center as if penetrating a wall of mist, surreally vanishing before emerging as nothing more than fireballs.

Answers came slowly to some of the many questions, but by no means all of them, as detailed in this special report.

The immediate question, “When will we be able to fly again?” had been partially answered after one week, as stranded aircraft made it back to home base, but the larger question of when something resembling normality would return remained far from clear as this issue went to press.

How will the attacks affect our freedom to live our daily lives, to travel? Will big-airport-style security measures have to be introduced at the smaller airports frequented by business aircraft? FBO procedures are already being fortified to reduce the relative porosity between road and ramp that was so appealing to users before September 11 (see page 6). The National Air Transportation Association, representing FBOs and charter operators, swiftly established a business aviation security task force, and its charter is to create and implement ways of ensuring that business aircraft (encompassing private, corporate, charter and fractional) are never accessible for use by terrorists.

One week after the attacks, The Boston Globe ran an article titled “Business jets pose a little-regulated attack opportunity,” in which it pointed out that “the focus on making airliners more secure after last week’s terrorist hijackings ignores the fleet of fast and increasingly large corporate jets that fly in and out of major cities each day, none of them subject to the new rules, or even to the less stringent ones formerly in force.”

The Globe article continued: “Passengers on the estimated 8,000 business jets operating in the U.S. are not checked to see whether they are carrying a knife or a gun. They generally board directly off the tarmac. Their bags aren’t screened before going in the cargo hold. And there’s little to prevent a wealthy terrorist from buying or chartering a fully fueled corporate jet–most of which lack the safety buffer of a cockpit door–and pointing it at Quincy Market, Fenway Park or any of the NFL stadiums that will be filled next weekend.”

The vulnerabilities highlighted in the Globe were already being addressed before the article was published, but this is the new public perception that business aviation has to confront. It is certain that business aviation users will not come and go as freely as they did before September 11, but the pieces of that puzzle are still being sorted.
For airliners, there has been talk about isolating the flight deck from the cabin with an impenetrable door that, presumably, would have to be sturdy enough to act as a pressure bulkhead in the event of a decompression in the cabin.

In our particular industry, an early question was whether or not the NBAA Convention would proceed as planned in New Orleans on September 18 to 20. NBAA president Jack Olcott announced, the day after the attacks, that the confab would be canceled “to redirect the association’s resources toward national recovery and aid to the victims and their families.” To some extent the decision was molded by word on September 11 that some of the biggest names on the exhibitor list had chosen to pull out.

The orchestration of the airspace shutdown and, more important, its reopening was perhaps the most vexing question for business aviation in the short term. The unfreezing was a tentative process, with some false starts.

Part 91 operators squealed loudly when they remained grounded while Part 135 operators, included under the federal umbrella of “commercial operators,” were released. They were politely reminded to view their frustrations in the perspective of the carnage in the Northeast.

Aviation emergency services in both New York City and Washington stood ready to answer the call, but it quickly became apparent that there was pitifully little work for them in moving survivors.

When the markets reopened on September 17, stocks of defense contractors generally rose on the prospect of war. Two of the big four business-jet builders are owned by defense contractors: the value of shares in General Dynamics, owner of Gulfstream Aerospace, rose 9 percent; beleaguered Raytheon rose nearly 27 percent. But Cessna and Bell Helicopter owner Textron fell by 10 percent.

It came as no surprise, in spite of talk of $20 billion in federal aid, that airline stocks were devastated by the airspace shutdown and fears of drastically reduced demand for air travel. United parent UAL dropped 43 percent, American parent AMR fell 39 percent, Continental was down 49 percent, Northwest was down 37 percent and US Airways plummeted 52 percent. The insurance industry is reeling from the prospect of massive loss payouts, and observers predict that premiums will rise sharply.

In the minutes after the attacks, lay observers were at a loss to explain how a hijacker could convince an airline pilot to crash an airliner into a building. But the pilots of the world knew differently long before they heard the first reports that the hijackers had commandeered the controls. To rub salt in the wounds, it transpired that the suicide pilots had been trained here in the U.S., thereby involving another facet of the aviation industry.

Another chilling issue contemplated by aviators on September 11 was the policy on shootdown of civilian airplanes by the U.S. military. Many of us learned that such action requires the express permission of the President. This permission was indeed given, but it came too late to be of any effect. The military’s early denial of any involvement in the United 757 crash in Pennsylvania was regarded with sad skepticism by some observers, and the loss seemed even more tragic when it transpired that the passengers, advised by cellphone of the events in New York, had thwarted the hijackers’ plans, bringing the airplane down short of its Washington target, which was speculated to be the White House or Capitol building.

A large element of AIN’s coverage is devoted to how business aviation dealt with this tragedy, and how it will likely adapt as the American people pick themselves up and reshape their lives in a new world.

A senior member of the business aviation community told AIN that Part 91 business aviation is flying again “not because the government recognizes us as good guys, and not because of any political persuasion exerted in the days following the disaster.”

Business aviation is flying again, he said, because of the economy. “The number-one driver that got IFR Part 91 back in the air is the practical reality that the economy has suffered a huge blow and must be restarted. It could be argued that VFR Part 91 plays an important role too, but to simple minds it appears that VFR is less tightly controlled than IFR,” this observer told AIN. The events of September 11, of course, prove that an IFR flight plan is no shield against losing control of a cockpit.

Part 91 operators were quick to point out that their modus operandi could never allow the events of September 11 to happen, but that argument fell on deaf ears in a government that was acutely aware that if four airliners could be hijacked to kill 6,000 people and reduce the symbols of America’s financial and military might to rubble, anything could happen.

Reagan Washington National Airport remained closed at press time, AIN was told, because of the absolutely real possibility of a large business jet, laden with explosives and jet fuel, doing a touch-and-go at DCA and, 12 seconds later, plunging into the White House or the Capitol. There were serious questions about whether DCA would ever reopen.

For now, business aviation’s leaders are focusing on formulating the actions that will satisfy the government that business aviation is sterile and not a threat. “The question on our table, is ‘What can we recommend to the nation to prevent the misuse of our aircraft as weapons?’” noted one industry veteran. Suddenly, everything business aviation does to shape its future stems from a question that never existed until 8:45 a.m. on September 11.

Business aviation is more appealing than ever as a mode of transportation in the aftermath of September 11. Several industry insiders, not wanting to appear callous or opportunistic at a time of such intense grief, would not go on record as being optimistic, but there is a very real feeling that business aviation will emerge stronger than ever. One broker told AIN that, on September 12, two potential buyers who had been sitting on the fence made competing offers on an airplane that they decided they now absolutely had to have. Another client who had listed his large-cabin business jet for sale withdrew it from the market, deciding instead to keep it.