A Special, Solemn Day
Air Line Pilot, November/December 2002, page 54-55
September 11, 2001, as the news media reminded people relentlessly, began as a normal workday. A year later, ALPA’s Executive Board began its normal workday—the second day of its fall meeting—with a simple ceremony remembering the pilots killed in the terrorist attacks and reflecting on the day’s unique significance to the union.
ALPA’s ceremony was low-key, befitting professionals who are generally taught to check their emotions at the cockpit door. But in his unscripted remarks, ALPA’s president, Capt. Duane Woerth, expressed a thought, which undoubtedly many pilots had shared since that day, about the horrible randomness of the choice of the four flight crews who had assumed that 9/11 would be a normal workday for them, too.
"We were all struck [by the horror of that day] because we could all see ourselves there. Every one of us could easily imagine being in one of those four crews," Capt. Woerth observed at the opening of the ceremony to mark "a special, solemn day." The Executive Board —made up of the chairmen from all of ALPA’s Master Executive Councils—observed a moment of silence at 8:46 a.m., the time the first airplane hit the World Trade Center.
What happened in the hours and days after the 9/11 attacks demonstrated the depth and breadth of the Association, as well as its global reach, Capt. Woerth said.
Critical Incident Response Team members, often after driving for hours, met with families and colleagues of the cockpit and cabin crewmembers of Flights 93 and 175 and with numerous pilot and other airline-employee groups.
Dozens of letters, telegrams, and other expressions of support poured into the ALPA offices from pilot unions around the world. Within hours, the union was tapped to coordinate the first of many high-level meetings that might have otherwise choked and stalled on governmental red tape. The union’s work to restore the U.S. air transportation system with reasonable, effective security measures is ongoing.
Capt. Woerth praised as the "un-sung heroes of that day" the Canadian pilots who pitched in on the 11th as the skies were emptied by the Department of Transportation’s order and as airplanes diverted to Canadian airports. Referring to the unprecedented "lockdown" of the U.S. and Canadian airline systems, he praised the contribution of "our Canadian brothers and sisters who coordinated and sorted out the nightmare between the Canadian government, the FAA, and the air-lines, took care of crews and passengers, and organized a way to make an orderly return as the North American air transportation system recovered."
And as passengers began tentatively making their way back to U.S. airports, they took their cue, as ALPA’s first vice-president, Capt. Dennis Dolan, had said to the Executive Board a day earlier, from "the people in the front of the airplane."
Though few passengers could define "captain’s authority," the concept—and ALPA’s support of it —helped restore passenger confidence, Capt. Woerth said.
"The most telling moment to me during that period was realizing why the passengers came back" when flights resumed, Capt. Woerth said. "Those first few days after the system was restored, I would be asked over and over in interviews, ‘Is it safe to fly?’ My response was always, ‘ALPA pilots wouldn’t fly if it wasn’t safe. They won’t push back that airplane if it’s not.…’
"For 71 years," Capt. Woerth continued, "this union has fought for captain’s authority, through the federal aviation regulations and through contracts, that an airplane isn’t going to be pushed back—whether for mechanical delays or safety concerns—until the captain is ready. Don’t underestimate how important that was after 9/11, because in the end, whom did the public trust, and why did they come back? They came back because airline pilots said they would fly. Without even understanding or articulating why, they trust us. They only need to understand one thing: this nation is safe to fly, the world is safe to fly, because pilots have successfully fought for the right to have the captain be in charge.… We’re not third-party consultants to the process, we’re not advisers to a flight. We put our lives on the line every day with these passengers."
ALPA memorialized its crew members who died on September 11 in a fashion similar to that in which it remembered the crew members of Pan Am 103 murdered over Lockerbie, Scotland—with a framed photograph of their airplanes to be hung in a place of honor at ALPA’s Washington, D.C., office. A copy of the memorial will also hang at the United MEC office in Chicago.
With the United MEC chairman, Capt. Paul Whiteford, attending a September 11 memorial service in New York, the MEC’s vice-chairman, Capt. Steve Hanel, and the other United pilot representatives attending the Executive Board meeting accepted from Capt. Woerth a plaque bearing the photo-graphs of a B-757 and a B-767, representing United Flights 93 and 175.
The inscription on the memorial reads, "The Air Line Pilots Association International honors the memories of Capt. Jason Dahl, First Officer LeRoy Homer, Capt. Victor Saracini, and First Officer Michael Horrocks. We pay tribute to our lost ALPA members who were the professional pilots of United Flights 93 and 175 on Sept. 11, 2001, and to their families, whose enormous sacrifice ALPA will never forget."
In addition to the monies raised through the United pilots’ "9/11 Fund," the families of the United crews received checks from the AFL-CIO and ALPA. The AFL-CIO’s New York Central Labor Council sent checks to union families who lost members in New York, including the families of the United Flight 175 crew. Capt. Woerth announced that the Association had matched those checks for the families of the Flight 93 crews.