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On September 11

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was in uniform, walking out the door of my hotel room in Oklahoma City, Okla., when my wife called. She told me that an airplane had just crashed into the World Trade Center. Since I had just been watching the Weather Channel, I had missed the news. Still I found it hard to believe, as the entire U.S. was in for a gorgeous day. When I switched to the news, with my wife still on the phone, I told her that there was no way that this was anything but a deliberate act. Neither of us realized that the second tower had been struck.

Ten years later, the industry has been changed in gut-wrenching ways. Cockpit doors are now fortified, and the cabin crew cannot casually pay a visit to the flight deck as they could in days past. Pilots can now carry guns, and for the record, I do not support in any way the Federal Flight Deck Officer program as it is currently structured. I also think it is unnecessary. Passengers have since taken matters into their own hands when someone raises a ruckus in the cabin, a la United 93. The TSA was created, and security screening is an ever-evolving process fraught with aggravations and problems, but it is more consistent than it ever was before. Unticketed persons can no longer go to the gate to wait for flights, which I thought would have changed by now (and it should).

The price of fuel soared in the middle of the decade, and the airplane that may well have saved the airlines—the CRJ and ERJ fleets—suddenly became too expensive. Bankruptcies and failures rocked the industry. Remember Midway Air, of Raleigh? They closed their doors on Sept. 12. General aviation had to fight for its survival, and to this day the training industry has yet to recover.

It’s been a long decade, one that at times seemed to crawl and at other times seemed to pass me by. But the industry is in many ways better off. The last of the old guard managers has left, and new disciplines have been introduced. Flights that lost money are no longer operated for the sake of maintaining market share. Flights are more quickly “right-sized” than before. International operations are a much more important part of the profit plan for legacy carriers. Low fare airlines are not always so low anymore, but they tend to be better products, and passengers continue to flock to Southwest, which has shown that less expensive tickets do not mean a cheap operation. Northwest and America West no longer exist, and once-major-hub airports are now a fraction of their once-dominant size (CVG, PIT, STL). Expensive and inefficient labor contracts have been redone–though, in some cases, to an extreme that will come back to bite the airlines.

There has not been a pilot strike in a decade.

The biggest threat facing the industry now is the lack of pilots on the horizon, combined with a lack of CFIs and appropriate institutions to teach them. General aviation is still way too costly for most to consider pursuing an airline career. But on the whole, improvements have been made; airlines are now ordering airplanes in large numbers. Looking back, it is amazing just how much waste there was that was easy to see and yet was still missed. Capacity control is much tighter, so revenues have climbed. And as much as I hate the new fees, they have reaped huge profits for the carriers.

Sept. 11, 2001, forever changed a lot of things. I went to Ground Zero days after those events, and the smell of burning wire, wood, metal, and human flesh, and the taste of dust and debris in the air are things I will never forget. Nor will I forget all the airline wings put on the ground in front of the engine house that lost so many. The city skyline just doesn’t look right without the towers, and it never will.

But our collective spirit has survived the bumps and bruises, and will continue to do so. Lady Liberty still greets us in the harbor, holding her torch high and proud. And every airplane that takes off and lands, be it a jet or a Cub, is proof that in the end, we as an industry will prevail. We must. We owe it to those who died that day.

–Chip Wright