On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, Airport Operations Superintendent John Glass was sitting in his office at Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) looking over inspection reports, construction activities, and a variety of daily operations-related matters that are routine at an airport. The day seemed set up to be an ordinary one for Glass who was then responsible for overseeing the day to day operations at PHL. Then, shortly after 8:45, Glass got a phone call from his wife telling him that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City.
Glass hung up and walked to the Operations breakroom and turned on the television and watched and listened to the network newscast reports of a plane (later identified as American Airlines Flight 11 that was hijacked by terrorists shortly after taking off from Boston en route to Los Angeles) hitting the World Trade Center. Then, as Glass and countless others focused on the images of the smoking tower at the southern tip of Manhattan, another plane (later identified as United Airlines Flight 175 hijacked by terrorists also after taking off from Boston en route to Los Angeles) suddenly appeared on the screen and crashed into the adjacent twin tower.
“My reaction was we’re under attack, there’s something bad going on here,” Glass recalled. “I called (then Deputy Director of Aviation, Operations) Mark Gale. I said, are you seeing what’s going on, he said yes let’s start figuring what’s going on here. Mark had called the FAA tower and was talking to them and basically they were saying that it seemed like the airspace was going to be closed, but this was the initial minutes after it happened and people were still trying to figure out what was going on.”
As tragic chaos was breaking out 100 miles to the north, confusion and an unsettling discomfort spread through PHL.
“Two airplanes into the buildings in New York – we didn’t know about the other planes at that time – what’s going to happen in Philadelphia? I’m thinking like are we having planes into buildings in Philadelphia,” Glass recalls. “We didn’t know what was going on. Was it an airplane that was coming to Philadelphia? Planes were still flying. Were there bad guys on planes in Philadelphia that were returning to the gate that may have had hijackers on them? They’re not going to take the plane down because they never got airborne, but are they going to try to do something? The fear was is there going to be some kind of potential attack of the flight crew or as people are getting off the plane? We didn’t know what we didn’t know so your head’s spinning just trying to figure things out, basically looking over your shoulder what’s about to happen next. Obviously, there had never been this kind of assault on the transportation/aviation system like this before. It was something nobody ever experienced to that level.”
Glass gathered the airside operations team, relayed what information he had about what had happened and then directed them to get on the airfield and start driving around and look for anything that didn’t look right.
“A lot of what we did to keep us on point and keep us focused was we just got into the mode of emergency response; what do we need to secure the problem,” he said. “So that was like checking the fence line, driving around and seeing do we have people who are out of place, airplanes that are not talking to the tower that may be on the ground or in the air. We were trying to get situational awareness of what was going on.”
Soon after the hijacked planes crashed into the twin towers, two more hijacked airliners – American Airlines Flight 77 (Washington, DC to Los Angeles) and United Airlines Flight 93 (Newark to San Francisco) – crashed into the Pentagon and Shanksville, PA respectively. With the U.S. commercial aviation system clearly under siege, the FAA shut down the airspace, stopping planes from taking off and ordering planes that were airborne to land at the nearest airport.
PHL, like every airport in North America, now had to accommodate not only flights that were scheduled to arrive here but numerous aircraft that were forced to make impromptu landings in Philadelphia including those of airlines which did not fly out of PHL.
“The biggest issue was we didn’t know how many planes we were going to get,” Glass said. “As planes were assessed by the FAA, they were told to land. It made it challenging to work out a plan because we had no idea how many to plan for. We gathered the information we had and worked with all the different entities to take care of things. Mark’s direction was to assess what parking we have available, start contacting our core airlines and see what assistance they may need, and keeping up with the FAA tower on what airplanes are coming in and landing and may need a gate or may not have a gate that we have to help them find parking. A lot of it was just working with different users to make sure those airplanes that were landing in Philly had a home somewhere whether it was with their airline at a gate or a remote parking spot or whatever arrangements were made.”
Accommodating aircraft that make unexpected stops at PHL isn’t unusual; handling diversions are a normal part of airport operations particularly during inclement weather like thunderstorms which often disrupt air travel. What was happening on September 11, 2001, though, was beyond what could be considered “irregular ops” as it’s known in aviation.
“We’re used to handling irregular operations, that’s something we’re always ready for to a point,” Glass noted. “While there were a lot of planes coming here, for us we had to look at our resources as far as parking spots, gates and stuff and start assigning it out and work with the carriers to assess the needs they had and help them get the people off planes so they could get the people out of the airport. Some had enough gates for themselves, some didn’t. Some didn’t operate in Philadelphia, so we had to help them find ground support or help getting people off through stair trucks and buses. It’s something we’re used to in an emergency, but to that level and extent you’re trying to figure out what is going on. Again, it probably gave us some comfort that we were doing some of our day to day operations and business that gave some people a little more sense of calmness that you’re doing something you’re used to doing so that maybe refocused you away from the events of what was going on with the hijacked airplanes. We’re used to dealing with events that require us to take action, so we had to just get into that mode and mentality.”
Like the nation as a whole at the time that came together after the attacks, Glass remembers a similar sense of all-in among the airport community. The cooperation and eagerness to help was much needed and appreciated by all.
“It was a group effort to make sure whatever was needed was available,” Glass said. “Everybody was working together. The aviation world is kind of a small family to a point so I think in general it’s a small enough group that people want to help each other, but obviously on day like that there’s no doubt all the airlines came together to assist whatever was needed and help the airport. Again, there were airplanes landing that didn’t have any services here and we were trying to find a ground handler or somebody to throw bags or do something. Atlantic Aviation (the fixed-based operator which typically handles private and charter flights), they have resources and they helped with the needs of airplanes, too. It was really a community effort to make it as smooth as you could make it with all the chaos that was happening.”
North American airspace was essentially shut down and airports virtually deserted for several days following the attacks. Against a backdrop of a nation dealing with the unprecedented horrid events, the authorities sorted through the travesty of how our aviation system was compromised. And while federal guidance was being established to ensure it didn’t happen again, the airport operations team were at PHL doing what needed to be done during the wait for commercial air service to resume.
“There were relief planes coming to Philadelphia, some cargo flights and other stuff that were being sent to Philadelphia to get equipment close to New York City and truck it up,” Glass said. “We were working with FedEx and some of the other cargo carriers who needed parking space to store tractor trailers on the airport. We were just working with a handful of flights that were still operating cargo-wise to help them with what they needed to get the plane landed, to get the supplies off the airplane and get them moving North into New York City. We were doing obviously a lot of additional inspections as far as the perimeter fence and just driving around looking for ‘suspicious’ activity but there was just so much unknown it was hard to just drive around and assume that every airplane and every person is a bad guy or whatever. A lot of it was standing by to get guidance and support what was happening in the system.
“A lot of what airport operations does whether there’s one airplane a day or thousands are federal inspections and FAA processes that we have to do every day,” Glass added. “We were still inspecting things, and we were taking advantage of some closures to do some work out there. Realistically, once we were back open our mentality changed. It was such an event that changed the world and aviation it was more our thoughts than our actual job changing. Our day to day duties had to be completed because of FAA regulations. There were inspections that had to be done for security reasons, so we were certainly helping airport police and security doing the requirements that the federal government were requiring airports to do like getting the sterile area secure. The FAA and FAA security at the time because TSA wasn’t yet created came up with a list of things that had to be done to recertify airports to get airports open. A lot of that was getting that information and working with everyone involved with that process.”
As Glass noted before airports could safely reopen to the flying public and air service could resume, a laundry list of security-related items needed to be checked. The “recertification” process included sweeps of the airport complex, perimeter inspections and revalidating employee badges. Similarly, airlines had requirements to get their aircraft in compliance and their workforce revalidated.
“That was one of our biggest challenges, the revalidation of badges,” Glass said. “Airlines had planes and flight crews all mixed up in areas of the country they weren’t anticipating. For us, it was working with airlines who may need people who don’t have badges to come to Philadelphia to inspect their airplanes or whatever. It was helping carriers who needed to get someone on airport property. If their employees worked in Philadelphia, we were responsible to set up a plan to revalidate badges.
“Otherwise, a lot of it was stuff we do every day like checking runways for safety and the different requirements the FAA gives airports. We’re just making sure the airfield and taxiways are in good shape and safe for these airlines to get back in service.”
Working in aviation on 9-11 wasn’t the only factor that makes that tragic day personal for Glass. His grandfather worked for decades for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and had an office high in the North Tower. As a youngster growing up in Central New Jersey, Glass had visited his grandfather at work and drove past the New York City skyline dominated by the twin towers countless times on the way to see relatives in North Jersey.
“My grandfather been retired quite a while before 9-11 but again he worked for the Port Authority for a very long time and it was near and dear to his heart,” Glass said. “These were iconic buildings when you looked at New York City, you always saw them. Growing up in New Jersey it was something I saw on regular basis. Losing them and the personal history of my grandfather working there, it made things a bit crazy. We drove by New York City all the time to see family in North Jersey, and it was something you were used to seeing until they were gone.”
For many, September 11, 2001 is a demarcation point. It marks the end of one world and the start of another. Nearly three thousand lives were senselessly lost that awful day at that hands of terrorists who hijacked four commercial airliners and used them as missiles to attack America. Everything seemed to change that day, and for those who lived through it, the effects still resound 20 years later.
“What sticks out in my mind is that aviation changed that day,” Glass reflected. “The TSA was created, the rules of security changed. Getting family and friends to the gate area and seeing people off. Just the entire business of aviation changed on how you did business at airports. But bigger than aviation, the world changed that day. I just think the world lost a lot of trust. You didn’t know what may happen next.
“What concerns me 20 years later people are forgetful of what 9-11 was and what it did to our world, not just aviation. People are less trusting even outside aviation. The world changed forever back then. After 20 years I don’t think of it on a regular basis because it’s been ingrained in our day to day operations at the airport and what we do. It does sadden me when I see security related things happening at airports and on airplanes. It’s sad how people forgot who the real enemy was then and now it seems we’re fighting amongst ourselves. It seems like people have forgotten 9-11 happened to a point and security is inconvenient for them whether it’s at an airport or wherever. It’s sad that people have forgotten what drove us to strengthen our resolve and bring us together as a nation as people that wanted to fight for good and all that. Life just changed then, and it would never be the same.”