Twenty-two years ago, 19 terrorists commandeered four U.S. airliners. They crashed them into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and an empty field in Pennsylvania. Almost 3,000 Americans were killed.
Even in the retelling, the numbers sound unbelievable.
Some 265 people perished on the four aircraft alone. They included eight pilots and 25 flight attendants, 20 of them women.
All 658 employees of financial service firm Cantor Fitzgerald who were at work that day in the World Trade Center were killed when the impact of the aircraft destroyed any possible exit from their offices.
Some 343 NY Fire Department firefighters were killed on 9/11. And tragically, as of October 2022 more than 300 firefighters had died from the effects of working on the smoking pile of rubble, from cancer, autoimmune conditions, cardiovascular diseases and neurologic issues.
But 9/11 is a story of heroism, and eventually, one of recovery, although the hole left in thousands of families can never be filled.
The people of the hospitality industry came through on 9/11 and its aftermat.
Betty Ong, a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 11, heroically reported the names and seat numbers of the hijackers until her plane crashed into the World Trade Center.
Sandra Bradshaw and CeeCee Lyles, flight attendants on United Flight 93 were part of the passenger/crew attack that took down the hijacked plane before it could hit its Washington target.
In New York, the Marriott World Trade Center, an 825-room hotel, hosted 940 guests. Hotel employees worked with the NYFD and successfully evacuated all but 11 before the hotel collapsed. As the New York Times put it, “A cadre of unsung Marriott workers, from managers to porters, stayed behind to make sure their guests got out.” Joseph Keller, the executive housekeeper who evacuated dozens of people, and Abdu Malahi, an AV technician, who went room to room searching for guests, were among those who did not survive.
Speaking of hospitability, Gander, Newfoundland, became one giant free, impromptu Airbnb when 38 planes with 7,000 passengers were denied access to US airspace. The uplifting musical Come from Away dramatizes this confusing, terrifying but ultimately connecting week before the passengers and crew could move on to their destinations.
The U.S. air traffic system was shut down for less than a week, yet it took months for passenger volumes to return to normal. Many planes were parked as travel fell off. Technology companies tried to promote video conferencing and even ‘virtual conferences’ for travel-shy corporate leaders, but the technology and bandwidth did not reach the level of today’s Zoom or Microsoft Teams.
My son was teaching a class on 9/11 to his high school students. He asked for an article about it. I sent him one about the conversation between Todd Beamer, a passenger on Flight 93 about to storm the hijacked cockpit, and Lisa Jefferson, a Verizon Airfone supervisor. I told him he might have to explain to students born long after 9/11, what an Airfone was. The air-to-ground phone service paid by credit card was discontinued in 2006 .
Certainly, 9/11 was a long time ago. The ubiquitous Apple iPhone wouldn’t arrive until 2007. Air Bed and Breakfast, later shortened to Airbnb, didn’t emerge until 2007 as well. Uber didn’t get on the road until 2010. Competitor Lyft appeared in 2012.
But the travel industry discovered a resiliency that would stand it in good stead during the long years of the COVID pandemic. Dozens of borders were closed and thousands of planes mothballed as travel plunged and nearly 7 million died around the world, including 1.1 million in the U.S.
The blow the travel industry took from COVID was much larger and longer than with 9/11.
In 2020 alone, the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) annual Economic Impact Report said the global travel and tourism sector suffered a loss of nearly $4.5 trillion from the pandemic. In 2019, global travel and tourism had generated one in four of all new jobs around the world, a total of 10.6 percent (334 million) jobs globally.
But the world air traffic system never completely shut down, and has returned from lows like April 2020, when U.S. passenger volume dropped 95%. With government help, the airlines kept flying, restaurants tried food and drinks to go with parking lot dining, and hotels experimented with ‘touchless’ housekeeping and bagged room service, or serving as homeless shelters.
The U.S. State Department managed to pull of the unprecedented evacuation of more than 100,000 Americans from 137 countries.
The much-maligned TSA, the Transportation Security Administration, created on November 19, 2001, persevered through COVID and has so far prevented another mass casualty attack. In 2022, the TSA screened 761 million people and intercepted a record 6,542 guns—18 a day—at security screenings at 262 different U.S. airports.
After 9/11, some thought the travel industry couldn’t survive. After COVID, others hoped that the travel industry wouldn’t survive, despite the economic impact. But the hard-working people of the travel industry, from pilots to house cleaners, keep making travel a valued experience and taking good care of their guests.