The world in the skies ten years after 9/11

The travel adviser: The world is a less safe place than it was a decade ago, but our vigilance remains steadfast.

airplane 311 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
airplane 311 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
It was an ordinary, late summerearly autumn workday on that Tuesday afternoon. The days were getting shorter, and the nights were definitely crisper.
TWA, for you aviation buffs, was still in business. The Labor Day holiday in the US was behind us and Rosh Hashana wasn’t taking place for another week.
It was September 11, 2001.
We are now approaching the 10th anniversary of what was, for my generation, an unforgettable, infamous day – and for the airline industry, more than any other date in the last quarter-century, a watershed event.
We got the call at 4:30 p.m. when a client of ours from the US said he’d just seen on TV that a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers. Although we were alarmed by the potential fatalities, we saw no reason to suspect the true nature of this heinous attack.
The client’s second call 30 minutes later only deepened our suspicion, and when a third phone call came in that Washington was under attack, we truly felt that the US was being invaded.
Within an hour, clients planning to depart to the US that evening were calling up and earnestly asking what we advised. Airline executives themselves were at a loss to give guidance until the Airport Authority, in consultation with the Prime Minister’s Office, closed down all airspace over Israel. Our air force, like countless military units throughout the world, went on high alert, and we were effectively quarantined inside our country’s borders.
With closing time at my office, my staff raced home and stayed glued to their TV sets along with the nation and most of the world, watching the horrors unfold.
The next day, the office was still in shock – and trying to deal with the dozens of our clients who had taken off only to have their aircraft grounded throughout Europe. A mother with two small children was encamped in Heathrow Airport, pleading with us to get her on any flight across the Atlantic.
A couple trying to commence their cruise in Miami couldn’t get out of Madrid. We had a pregnant woman in her ninth month trying to get back to Israel from LA. Yet nobody panicked, no threats were made. Already a feeling of unity was starting to develop.
FOR ME, the most poignant client was our children’s pediatrician. Her son was on one of the American Airline flights that flew into the World Trade Center. All she wanted was to get to the US; she wanted to believe with every fiber of her being that he had somehow survived.
Daniel Lewin was born in Denver and raised in Jerusalem. He served for four years in the Israel Defense Forces, becoming an officer in one of the most elite units, Sayeret Matkal. His service to the country complete, he attended the Technion before heading out to MIT in Boston, working on his doctorate.
This Renaissance man came up with algorithms to optimize Web traffic and has been honored posthumously as one of the most influential figures of the Internet.
On September 11, he was on American Airlines flight No. 11.
For the last 10 years, Daniel Lewin has epitomized for me what a true hero is. Sitting in business class on the short flight, in seat 9B, he was no doubt very near the hijackers.
Federal documents have been released showing that he attempted to foil the hijacking, resulting in his fatal stabbing. He was most likely the first victim of the day.
For the next two days, while we were bombarded with attempts to assist stranded clients, we tried every possible way to get his mother to the US. The slightest rumor that the airport would be reopened had us using every resource available to get her on a plane. Hours stretched into days as the skies remained closed.
It was only after three days that El Al was permitted to depart Tel Aviv and make its way to JFK. Thousands of people were clamoring to get onto that flight. Tourists had been stranded here; previously booked passengers were also waiting to leave.
But rest assured – Lewin’s mother was on that flight.
THE LAST 10 years have seen a complete change in how travelers fly. The advent of faster computers now enables Big Brother to review in advance who will be entering the United States. Airlines and airline personnel have studied in depth how El Al manages its profiling and what operating systems it uses on every plane. Many ex-El Al employees have utilized their knowledge in lucrative careers as security consultants around the world.
The world is a less safe place than it was a decade ago. No doubt the next few weeks will see new attempts by terrorists to coordinate attacks to coincide with the 10-year anniversary.
Our vigilance remains steadfast.
All of us have resigned ourselves to the reality that air travel will never be the luxury it once was. Security procedures will continue to develop, leaving us with fewer and fewer personal freedoms. This is a small price to pay for our safety.
We have enough heroes. Let’s hope we never need their kind again on a plane.
The writer is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem.