Air Travel System Grounded for First Time

By Glenn Kessler and Don Phillips
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 12, 2001

The complex air system that links families and commerce across the United States shut down yesterday for the first time as federal authorities ordered thousands of jets to land and canceled all other flights until at least noon today.

The sudden grounding reverberated across the nation. It disrupted the travel plans of nearly 2 million passengers, halted overnight mail delivery, turned 460 normally busy airports into ghost towns and in some cases spawned chaos and panic. Officials urged Americans to consider other modes of transportation.

The hijackings of four planes flying out of three airports, and the apparent ease with which the terrorists eluded detection, raised new questions about the safety and security of air travel in the United States. The grounding could also dampen enthusiasm for air travel, hurting an already ailing industry that accounts for 3 percent of the economy.

Government officials said that when flights are permitted to resume, extraordinarily tight security will be imposed on airlines and airports, including elimination of curbside luggage check-in and imposition of earlier passenger check-in times. Uniformed officials, some borrowed from local police offices, will be highly visible in airports. The "sky marshal" program -- gun-carrying officials on planes -- will also be revived; it had been largely moribund after a rash of hijackings three decades ago.

After authorities ordered the grounding, air traffic controllers worked for hours to safely land the flights in the air while at the same time scanning their radar scopes for other possible hijackings. All four jets commandeered yesterday by terrorists had their transponders turned off in flight and did not respond to radio calls before they crashed, sources said, meaning controllers saw them only as unidentified blips on their radars -- and had no access to routine information about the flight number, speed and altitude of the jets.

Controllers at Dulles International Airport, for instance, spotted an unidentified aircraft on radar that was flying at unusually high speed directly toward the White House yesterday morning. They warned authorities minutes before the Boeing 757 jet turned tightly to the right and circled around to slam into the Pentagon, according to federal aviation sources.

Rumors and unverified reports added to the anxiety throughout the day. Federal and state courthouses in Anchorage were evacuated after reports that a plane hijacked in Korea was headed toward the city. Marten Vermaat, a lawyer who flew F-18s in the Persian Gulf War, reported seeing an F-15 leave Elmendorf Air Force Base, near Anchorage, heading southward. But the reports turned out to be a false alarm.

The FAA held a continuous telephone news conference with reporters -- though officials could provide few answers -- and the questions reflected the level of concern throughout the nation. Several Chicago reporters called to ask about reports that a commercial plane was circling the city. Another reporter from Detroit asked about two flights in Detroit airspace and another that, after it landed in Canada, was surrounded by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

In Boston, passengers crammed into phone booths and restaurants to contact family, friends and business associates. A center for victims' families, with grief counselors, was set up in the Hilton hotel near the airport.

"We were ready to take off and they said there was a call to take the plane back to the gate," said Gregory Stephanopoulos, 50, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor from Boston. "We thought it was something with our own plane, but then I saw a flight attendant crying and knew something serious was afoot. It's an awful thing."

Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy's Atlantic Fleet sent warships to bolster the air defenses of Washington and New York City. It also sent medical personnel and U.S. Marines to both cities to lend humanitarian and medical support.

The ships include aircraft carriers, amphibious ships, guided missile cruisers and guided missile destroyers, said Barry Higginbotham, a spokesman for the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, based in Norfolk, also home of the world's largest naval base. He declined to say how many ships were involved.


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