9/11 and Washington National Airport

On September 11, 2001, I was attending a conference in Montreal, Canada, along with 2,000 other airport managers and staff from every major airport in the U.S and around the world.

We had just finished listening to the Canadian Minister of Transportation when the program was interrupted to announce an unthinkable event. A commercial jet had struck the World Trade Center in New York City. Within minutes, the jumbo screen in the convention hall showed a split screen of smoke billowing from one of the towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

Within three hours, the managers and staff of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, who were attending the conference, were in rental cars heading across the border for home. We arrived at 1:30 a.m. passing the Pentagon, which was still burning.

The next day, September 12, it was clear that airports around the country would remain closed. The Air Traffic Control system was still grounded. The FAA and Canadian air traffic controllers had successfully landed thousands of aircraft around the country and in Canada within hours of the attacks and planes and people remained wherever they landed, like a cosmic game of “freeze”.

The FAA was giving airports and airlines new security measures that had to be put in place before reopening. At airports across the country and at ours -- Reagan National and Dulles International-- airline managers were meeting with our airport staff to review these new security requirements and figure out how to implement them for the planned opening of the system the next day, September 13.

A command post was established at National Airport in the conference room adjacent to the Airport Operations Office. This historic site once served as the private conference room for President Theodore Roosevelt, who had selected the site on which to build National Airport and oversaw its construction. We were sitting in that room trying to make sense of what had happened, to understand what it meant for us as airport operators and to get back to work.

On September 13, every airport in the country opened for business except two—Boston Logan and Washington National.

Logan did open later but National remained closed for an unprecedented 23 days because of national security concerns.

September 20, 2001, was the day we literally closed National Airport. We locked the doors, turned down the ventilation system turned off the lights, and sent the workers home.

As I walked through the massive concourse admiring its beauty, I could hear my own footsteps echoing along the hall. On a typical Friday at 4:00 p.m. the concourse would be full of travelers coming in and out of shops, waiting in line for restaurant seats, and stopping by the Travelers Aid desk. That day, it was empty. I looked to my left out the expansive window wall at the empty ramp areas. Not a plane to be seen. Fifty-one planes had been left at the gates when the terminal was evacuated on September 11 and the airlines had flown them all out - empty – days ago.

Just three days before we locked up the terminal, we had a press conference in this hall with the Governor of Virginia calling for the opening of the airport; followed by two days of major demonstrations of support for opening the airport by the elected officials in Congress, local jurisdictions, and the business community The airport workers had held a rally just hours before calling on the President to put them back to work, as he had urged the country to go back to work. My job was Public Affairs Manager for the Airports Authority and those twenty-three days were the busiest and most challenging of my career. Aside from being a native Washingtonian, I had come to love the DC Airports and the aviation world and tried to make the case for reopening National Airport in the most objective and non-emotional way possible.

I walked through the airport terminal that we had introduced to the public just five years before. The “New National”, was a great reconstruction project that made a truly fitting entry to the nation’s capital.

And the beauty of the terminal itself. The wonderful artwork. I looked at it again, only more closely, than I do every day. How could this building close?

How could my hometown, my city’s airport be no more? How could the place that thousands of people came to work in every day, and thousands more came to board aircraft, be no more?

I couldn’t and wouldn’t believe it.

By Thursday, September 27, National Airport was the only airport in the country not yet open and it appeared that the decision was with the National Security Council and the Secret Service.

As the days continued, there was growing support in the Washington region to open National Airport. The arguments were predominantly “economic” since the airport not only employed thousands of people but also was a huge generator of revenue for the region. And the issue of the Airport’s proximity to Washington was really not an issue considering that aircraft fly from any point. The security issue would have to be addressed in the operation of aircraft and screening of passengers and others with access.

At 10:45 the motorcade rolled onto the ramp area at National Airport near Terminal B and people started clapping. The gathered employees wildly cheered President Bush when he announced that Reagan National Airport would open on Thursday, October 4.

It began that day with 190 total flights during the first three weeks and increasing to 450 flights over the next 45 days. Before September 11, our usual day saw 700 or more scheduled flights.

Our airport community was happy, and even faced with a challenging turnaround in a short time period there were no complaints. The local airline station managers were people who got things done. On a good day, in what used to be normal times, they put up with every conceivable annoyance and problem that can be imagined in operating hundreds of flights, managing employees and serving the public. Those last three weeks had been painful for them. They had to send their employees home and wonder about their own futures. But that day, it was all about doing the job.

On Thursday, October 4 we programmed “Welcome Back” and “We’re Back in Business” onto our electronic message boards at the airport entrances and on our displays in the terminal.

The closing of National issue brought the region’s elected leaders, business community and the general public together as never before. The nation’s--and DC’s-- Airport was finally open again.

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