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The way we fly can never be the same

September 11, 2011
By PAUL GIANNAMORE , The Herald-Star

With the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the crash of United Flight 93 in a field at Shanksville in Southwestern Pennsylvania, the skies over America went silent. The unprecedented step to order all commercial and private aircraft to land came from the Federal Aviation Administration at 9:45 a.m.

Airliners and business jets and tiny single-engine planes all spent the next couple of days on the ground.

Like many people, Tom Tominack, airport manager at Wheeling-Ohio County Airport recalls the crystal-clear, unimagineably blue sky with no cloud from horizon to horizon. He said the unprecedented order to land everything meant airplanes had to seek immediate alternates to planned destinations. Wheeling-Ohio County was prepared even for airliners to land, because Pittsburgh International was overflowing.

"A few corporate aircraft were sent here that weren't planning to be here," he said. "I will never forget the shock of the people who got off those planes when we had to tell them what was going on, and that security had to meet them, brief them and check them.

"And from there, there was the silence in the skies. We have never seen it. We were all wrapped up, being so close to Pittsburgh and wrapped up with Flight 93, which went right between us and Pittsburgh. Our tower had been briefed. We were unsure where it was going," he said.

At Pittsburgh, Bradley Penrod, the current Allegheny County Airport Authority chief executive, was working as chief operating officer. The airport authority director and other senior managers were in Canada for a seminar.

"We first thought it was an accident like everyone else did, then we saw the second plane hit and we didn't know until we heard for sure what it was," said Penrod, whose been at Pittsburgh International for 29 years. "We couldn't make out who it was airline wise, so we started contacting carriers."

Pittsburgh was still a US Airways hub then, and the airline had airplanes of the size and type the terrorists had used.

"Flight 93 passed overhead, and some of the coolest people in the air traffic control business called and said, 'We're leaving the building,'" Penrod said. "They actually controlled airplanes for Pittsburgh from the field, from vehicles, just to get everything on the ground. We improvised very well. We think the staff is equipped to handle just about anything and we proved that."

Quiet skies

Around 6 p.m. or so, Tominack recalls walking out of Wheeling's terminal, a throwback to the innocent days of the beginnings of big prop-driven commercial airliners plying the American skies after World War II.

"It was quiet. There was no aviation. And then I heard an aircraft. I looked straight up and it was Air Force One, with two escorts on each wing, with the President heading back to Washington," he said.

He recalled he and county administrator Greg Stewart had gone earlier in the day to the Highlands, which was at the time still just a vacant hilltop east of Wheeling awaiting the flurry of commercial development to come, to mark a site for Wal-Mart executives to fly over on their way to the airport. The flight never came because of the attacks.

In Pittsburgh, Penrod said the effort turned to meeting whatever requirements major commercial airports would have to meet to get the system going again.

"It was a constant 'what's next,'" he said. "We did not realize it would be a couple of days. There was a certification process. We had to sign a bunch of paperwork back to the FAA, and we were told we were the first one in the country to do that."

Penrod said there was an engineering effort, among other tasks, to build roads and facilities to keep vehicle traffic away from the terminal when the reopening occurred. There was a rule that vehicles could not stop within 50 feet of the front of an airport terminal for awhile.

So, Pittsburgh adjusted to making its terminal - less than a decade old at that point - meet the new rules. A road allowing commercial cabs to go past the parking structure and back onto the commercial road was built. For awhile, the airport's front door became the entry to the moving walkway tube just opposite the Hyatt Hotel entrance, out at the mid-term parking area, and accommodations to handle drop-off traffic had to be made. A bus stop was built across from the lower level of the garage.

"Once we figured out what was going on, we called our draftsmen in the middle of the night to make maps, and we posted those and passed them out to the world," he said.

It helped that there was a paving crew on site, having started to expand the employee parking lot on Sept. 10, Penrod recalled.

"Everything we did took place in the conference room" on the fourth-floor mezzanine of the airside terminal building, where the authority's offices are located.

"Around 6 or 7 o'clock, we walked outside, just to get some fresh air. It was eerily quiet. The only noise was from military jets passing overhead. The system was shut down, and by 7 p.m., there were no passengers here, really," Penrod said. "I left here after midnight and was back at 6 a.m. Like everyone else, we were glued to the network news shows to see what was going on. Then we took a blind leap of faith, signed a couple of pieces of paper that said we were good to go. We did that sometime late in the afternoon of the 12th."

Different times

Aviation has not been the same from the moment of the first impact into the World Trade Center, Tominack said.

He said in some ways, it has benefited smaller airports like Wheeling-Ohio County because of growth in corporate aviation. Some of that growth came because of the increased inconvenience in getting aboard commercial flights because of tighter security and personal and baggage searches after Sept. 11.

For one- or two-hour flights, business aircraft are more productive, Tominack said.

"There's just a lot more to go through to get on a commercial flight to deal with for a shorter flight," he said.

He said everyone in the aviation industry, however, continues to look at every level for ways to stop attempts to attack the nation.

"It's in the back of everyone's mind now. We're evaluating everyone and everything that is going on. There are agencies in place to alert us, which is good, but in another way, the entire industry has changed," he said.

Pittsburgh International's flexible design enabled it to meet the new needs of safety and security. The early 1990s state-of-the art design included the concept of the airside/landside separate buildings, which eliminated the need for connecting passengers to have to pass through security. In part, that was a help to US Airways, which used Pittsburgh as a major connecting hub. During its peak years, Pittsburgh passed more than 20 million passengers annually from 1995 through 1998, according to the airport authority.

The airline pulled the hub out in 2004-05, which Penrod said is probably a direct result of Sept. 11. He said the airport has adapted as society has adapted, including dealing with fewer passengers, at 8.16 million in 2010.

Despite being inaccessible to non-ticketed airport visitors and having fewer people transferring between planes, the AirMall shopping concourse at the intersection of the gate areas continues to be viable. Penrod said Pittsburgh International only slipped this past spring from first to second in the sales-per-enplanement category, at about $14.50 spent per passenger. JFK Airport moved to the top spot in the spring, he said. The AirMall was able to take advantage of people arriving earlier to board flights now, making up for the pull-out of the US Airways hub.

"It forced us to put the traffic to the middle, which moved more people across the concession base, and that helped keep concession sales up," he said. "Although we go through the same kinds of economic issues across the region, we're never going to have plywood storefronts here. If you were never in this building before, you'd be very hard pressed to find out what modifications were made."

The design of the airport allowed for reducing the number of gates in use when traffic declined, while not making the airport appear to be partially closed off.

"The building is flexible. On the good days, we can add another 25 gates. On a bad day, we can close off 25 gates," Penrod said. "Would I like a bigger screening checkpoint today? We've gone from a very strong hub to a very strong regional destination market, so there are times of day we have lines longer than we'd like to see, but we're working on that."

Secure future

Pittsburgh International Airport opened an alternate security checkpoint in the former E-Gates commuter airline building five years ago, doubling the available security checkpoint service. With the end of US Airways commuter services, the E-Gates building no longer serves for passenger gates. The alternate security checkpoint is used during busy times of the day.

Visibly, Wheeling-Ohio County Airport has seen men and women head off to war, with the Air National Guard base sending its Blackhawk helicopters off twice, and the Army Reserve detachment at the airport also going to Iraq.

"The mission of the Air National Guard has changed as a result of Sept. 11. They were in place to support the state in times of need, such as flooding or search and rescue. Now, they do federal missions," he said.

The control tower at the airport once welcomed student and Scouting tours, but visitation has been cut off since Sept. 11, 2001.

He said having the Air National Guard and the Army Reserve bases at the airport means the airport is on a higher alert than before.

"The microscope has been on aviation in every sense since then, naturally. Most of the media coverage has been in negative stories," Tominack said. "But with the vastness of this nation, America through the decades built airports and a network of air carriers and corporate aviation as the way to move people. We're not like Europe. We don't have trains. We use airplanes to move people."

And Penrod said other than knowing the screening process will continue to progress and become quicker, it's hard to know exactly what the system will entail in a few years.

"Rather than looking for the needle in the perennial haystack, that field of looking for the bad guy will get narrower," he said. "Technology will allow certain things to happen quicker. The throughput of the machines will catch up."

He held up his cell phone and said 15 years ago, no one would have thought the devices would be as pervasive as they are today.

Pittsburgh also has a geographic advantage for the business world that will bode well for the airport and its cargo services.

"You cannot build enough pavement on the East Coast of the United States," he said. Penrod said the demand for aviation continues to increase though environmental concerns and cost will limit the ability to expand airports, for both the airlines and the government.

"Here, we have the airside capacity, the landside capacity, the airfield capacity and the airspace," he said. "Once you are on the ground in Pittsburgh with a box of widgets, you can be to within 53 percent of the population of the United States and Canada within eight hours. It takes you eight hours to get out of JFK, if you're lucky, and the product you fly into JFK normally doesn't all leave JFK."

Pittsburgh International stands ready and able to serve an increase in demand, too.

"We could turn 25 gates back on at a moment's notice. They might be dusty," he said with a smile. "Would we rather things were different? Well, 10 years ago, we were being yelled at for having high air fares. Now, we have attractive air fares. It takes a little longer to get there. But the bigger and healthier the market gets, the airlines respond, and I think we've seen that."

 
 

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