Each year on the 11th of September, we are met with a well-known phrase everywhere we go. ‘Never Forget.’ Stand in an airport security line or board a flight any other day, and somehow it all seems to be forgotten. I was working a flight recently from Philadelphia to Seattle. About halfway through the trip, a passenger marched up to the forward galley to use the restroom. She immediately began pulling at the door handle, but someone had been using the lavatory at that time. I informed her the restroom was unavailable and kindly asked that she step back until the lavatory became available. She immediately questioned me, while standing just a few feet away from the flight deck door. “Why can’t I stand here?” I responded, “For security purposes, I ask that you please move back. We just can’t have too many people up here at one time.” She immediately became angry with me. “I’m a paying customer and I should be able to do what I want. Who are you to tell me what I can and can’t do?” she barked at me. My mind immediately went to 9/11. My situation in that moment was undoubtedly different than the ones faced by flight attendants like Betty Ong and Amy Sweeney, but I asked myself – is it really that easy to forget? Do people not think about 9/11 because it has simply slipped their minds or is it easier to block it out rather than imagine the unthinkable?
It doesn’t matter how many years pass, September 11, 2001 is a day that will sit heavy in each of our hearts forever, but especially heavy in the hearts of flight attendants. Whether you realize it or not, your flight attendants are thinking about 9/11 far more frequently than you would imagine. Flight attendants remember the tragic events of that day quite often not just because it hits close to home, but because part of our job is to make sure that it never happens again.
On the morning of September 11th, 2001, a flight attendant named Halle Cameron woke up to a confusing phone call from crew scheduling. They asked why she was late to work for American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles. As it turns out, there was a mix-up since she had called in sick the night before. She hung up the phone and the airline scrambled to replace her. Crew scheduling then called 24-year-old reserve flight attendant Jean Rogers, who was sitting standby at Boston Logan International to work the flight. Jean rushed off to the gate while Halle shrugged off her interaction with crew scheduling. Later that morning, Halle stood in front of her television and learned that the very flight she was originally scheduled to work had been hijacked and crashed. Her heart dropped and so did she. Halle knew Jean. That could’ve been her. Somehow, a higher power in the universe had other plans for Halle. Since that day, the guilt caused by something out of her control has mostly faded but the memories are as clear as ever. People continue to call her “lucky” but the only thing that makes her feel lucky is the comfort in knowing that her friends and family didn’t have to grieve over her. Twelve years after 9/11, Halle returned to flying but this time with US Airways, which coincidentally merged with American Airlines. If you ask her how the job compares to what it was before 9/11, she says it’s different to say the least. While flight attendants were once issued white service gloves, they now are equipped with handcuffs during training. Even with everything Halle has been through, she still feels that being a flight attendant is the best job she’s ever had. There’s truly no family like a flight attendant family.
We don’t remember these stories because we want to live in the past, we remember them to honor the lives of those that we lost and to remind ourselves to remain vigilant when it comes to safety. Flight attendants are aviation’s first responders. The accounts of flight attendants like Betty Ong, Amy Sweeney, and Jean Rogers are not simply stories, but reminders of the critical role that flight attendants play. The flight crews of American Airlines Flight 11, United Airlines Flight 175, American Airlines Flight 77, and United Airlines Flight 93 each performed their duties to the best of their abilities and took risks. These men and women are unsung heroes and as flight crewmembers, we honor their memories every day when we take to the skies.
Immediately following the attacks of 9/11, the world was completely transformed. A lot of these changes didn’t happen slowly over time as one might think but they happened almost instantly. Planes were grounded. Airport procedures were reformed. Security was completely changed not just in airports but in schools, office buildings, post offices. Everywhere you went, the world felt different. There was a sense of trust that had previously existed in the world that was now completely gone. People don’t often realize the wide-reaching effects of 9/11. Everyone from the pilot of a commercial airplane down to the administrative assistant who works in an off-site warehouse for UPS had to completely change their way of living. The reality was harsh, but everyone knew that change was inevitable.
Flight attendants aren’t trained solely for the purpose of serving drinks and snacks, but we are also trained to protect passengers and ourselves from any potential threat whether that be mechanical issues, fires, decompressions, or even terrorist attacks. What remains unseen to the regular passenger’s eye is that while a flight attendant is on duty, nearly everything we say or do is safety-related. We are trained to be alert and maintain a healthy level of suspicion regarding everything that occurs on the aircraft. We look for potential in every passenger not because we want to assume the worst, but because safety and security is of the utmost importance. Whether you get up to pull something out of your suitcase, take a trip or two to the lavatory, or even readjust in your seat, chances are one of the flight attendants is watching to make sure the behavior is as innocent as it seems. On 9/11, the events that occurred in those attacks happened so quickly that there is simply no such thing as being too prepared.
The next time you board an airplane, you may find yourself upset about the lack of legroom or inoperative Wifi. Your flight attendants likely have so much more on their minds, especially if you’re flying on September 11th, all while trying to address your concerns and provide you with a safe and comfortable flying experience. Even if we weren’t working crewmembers on 9/11, each of us still feels the effects from that fateful day as we honor our fellow crewmembers that were lost. 25 flight attendants, 8 pilots, 3 customer service agents, and countless other souls not in the aviation industry were lost that day. All across the nation, members of the aviation community were supporting each other all while caring for stranded and scared passengers. The aftermath of 9/11 was harsh, unforgiving, but important. The next time TSA asks you to remove your shoes or a flight attendant requests that you to return to your seat, remember the important role of aviation safety professionals today and every day.
While the events of 9/11 may slip your mind from time to time, one thing is for certain – your flight attendants will never forget.
A very special thank you to our friend and fellow flight attendant, Halle Cameron, for recounting her experiences from 9/11 and allowing us to tell her story.