After Sept 12, An Airport Security Overhaul

Ten years ago — the day after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — there was not a plane in the sky. Air travel was shut down. As it resumed over the course of the following days and months, security measures at the nations' airports were overhauled. Michele Norris talks with Matthew Wald, who covers transportation for the New York Times.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host: Americans woke up to a very different world on September 12th one decade ago. For one thing, the sky was empty. The thousands of jets that normally crisscross the country at any moment were grounded, and the U.S. government and the airline industry had to figure out what would come next.

The national ground stop had a lasting effect. To learn more about that, we turn to Matthew Wald of The New York Times. He covered the events of that day and he continues to track the resulting changes. Welcome back. Always good to talk to you.

MATTHEW WALD: Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: First, the stoppage. How long did it last, and were all commercial flights in the U.S. grounded?

WALD: Not only all commercial, all flights were grounded. They were told to land at the nearest suitable airport. A couple of days later, they were allowed to proceed to their destinations. And gradually, different classes of aviation were allowed to resume. Initially, there weren't a lot of people who wanted to fly, so it took time to get the system going again. And we've never had a national ground stop like that before.

NORRIS: Let's talk about some of the changes that grew out of that no-fly order. The most obvious, I guess, would be security. Big changes there.

WALD: At the time, security at the checkpoints where the passengers would arrive was run by contractors hired by the airlines. Quickly, people decided this wasn't a good idea. The pay was low, turnover was horrific, training wasn't very good. So it was made a federal function first by bringing in 4,000 National Guardsmen, lots of state and local police, federal officials to supervise the private screeners, and then replacing almost all of them with federal employees, the Transportation Security Administration.

NORRIS: There are also changes in the way that cockpits are protected and staffed.

WALD: There are - the instant change was to change the theory: You should cooperate with hijackers so nobody gets hurt. And after September 11th, you never open the cockpit door, and pretty quickly, we replaced the cockpit doors. The cockpit doors have two functions, a security function and also a safety function. If you have part of the airplane depressurized, you want to have the whole airplane depressurize evenly. So they were flimsy for a technical engineering reason, and they had to be re-engineered. Now, they're very tough doors.

NORRIS: And air marshals, they are now flying with greater frequency?

WALD: Well, yes and no. Immediately afterwards, the secretary of Transportation, then Norman Mineta, said we need a lot more air marshals. And for a while, we had a lot more air marshals. The number before and after was classified. And that program has sort of waned. We've reduced the number of air marshals. On the other hand, we now have some pilots who are licensed to carry guns in the cockpit.

NORRIS: When all of those jets were grounded, did the airlines use this ground stoppage to rethink how they operate?

WALD: Well, the airlines were in the midst of some kind of restructuring, anyway. They got hit very hard by this. They had extra expenses. They had depressed passenger counts. You know, the plane that crashed in Shanksville, Flight 93, had only about 40 people on board. That was a 767. That's a big airplane.

There has been a steady shift away from the mainline carriers towards regional carriers for a couple of reasons: Price of fuel went up, it's easier to fly a small plane with 40 people on it that a huge play with 40 people on it; they pay the pilots. That trend has continued. Some of that is driven by 9/11 and some of it is just coincident with it.

NORRIS: Does 9/11 represent a line of demarcation in the airline industry in a special way, in a sense that it was more than a national tragedy. It really did change the path forward for the industry.

WALD: I think 9/11 did change the airlines and the way the airlines see themselves. The airlines are generally, from a safety perspective, doing extremely well. The rate of fatal crashes is down by about 80 percent in the last 15 years. Planes just don't crash the way they used to.

We used to get two or three big crashes a year. We haven't had a crash of a large airliner since November of 2001. It was a pure accident two months after 9/11. And we've had a significant number of smaller plane crashes, but with much less frequency than before.

NORRIS: Better training or more inspection of those planes?

WALD: Better training, better procedures, better recognition of precursors to accidents, better management, both on the government side and the airline side. And the result is it's much safer to fly than to drive, despite the horrors of 9/11. It's almost safer to fly than to stay home.

So the airlines are changing in a lot of different ways simultaneously. And they have attracted traffic back. I don't think most people get on an airplane today particularly worried about terrorist attack, except maybe on anniversaries, et cetera.

NORRIS: Matthew Wald is with The New York Times. Matt, thanks so much for coming in.

WALD: Thank you, Michele.

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