Q&A: Peoria Airport Director Olson Reflects On 20th Anniversary Of 9/11, And How Attacks Changed Air Travel Industry
Peoria International Airport director Gene Olson has been in charge of the Metropolitan Airport Authority since 2009. Before that, he served as the assistant airport manager at Evansville Regional Airport in Indiana.
Olson had been in that position for a little over a year on Sept. 11, 2001, when a series of coordinated hijackings resulted in the deadliest terrorist attacks in American history.
In a lengthy discussion with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, Olson reflects on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and how the air traffic industry has changed over the past two decades.
This conversation has been edited for length, clarity, and brevity.
Joe Deacon: What are your memories of Sept. 11, and how the attacks impacted your daily routine at the airport that day?
Gene Olson: It's certainly not a day that I'll ever forget. I had just come to work and just gotten in, and everybody was talking about an airplane had hit the World Trade Center. In my mind, my first thought was, “Oh, this was probably some little general aviation aircraft or something like that,” and a lot of times when something like that happens, there's a knee-jerk reaction and a silly rule gets passed. So that was what was in my head. We went and turned on the television and tuned in the news, and we actually watched the second aircraft hit the tower. Everybody instantly knew that that was terrorism.
So with that realization, how did people react? What were your immediate thoughts and feelings?
Olson: It was kind of a shock and being stunned, and then everybody was kind of, “What do we do now?” Then we started getting phone calls from air traffic control and things like that, wanting to know how many airplanes could we accommodate, because they were going to be shutting the whole aviation system down.
Evansville is a lot like Peoria. It's a small community located on a river. A lot of the demographics are very similar, and the airports are pretty similar, and we didn't have a whole lot of apron space. So we started making plans for shutting down one of our three runways and parking airplanes on the runway. We had a thing that's kind of like our parking lot shuttle bus but it was outfitted as a mobile command post, and we started figuring out how we were going to move passengers from the airliners to the terminal building.
We ended up not needing those plans, because we only got two airplanes and they were from two of the airlines that we had. So they taxied up and parked at the terminal building, and so we didn't have to go to any extraordinary measures in that regard.
So this was to accommodate planes that were being told to land. Did you also have to start canceling outbound flights?
Olson: Everything after the attacks was pretty much canceled, and I don't think – first of all, airports never cancel flights, the airlines do that. But yeah, the airspace was being closed, so there's high-level communication between the FAA and the airlines. So that communication was going on and airspace was being shut down.
I think everything was shut down for a day or two, and then we started hearing from the FAA and we basically, in order to open back up and have airlines be able to fly into and out of Evansville, we had to basically sweep the terminal building. So we divided the building up into sections and then had everybody – like the airlines, everybody that was a tenant inside the airport that had a security badge – went through and, for example, I had to sweep the inbound baggage room, and we were supposed to look for anything that could be used as a weapon.
I remember also, we got it alerted because there was a passenger’s bag that was sitting in front of the airline ticket counter, and it was buzzing. Everybody just knew there was going to be a bomb in that bag, and what it turned out to be was an electric razor that had gotten squished to the point where the button turned on and the razor ran until the battery went out.
Some of the things that came down from the FAA made us wonder how far compromised is the system and what's going to happen next.
Even with that uncertainty, was it apparent pretty quickly that this was going to have long-term ramifications on the air traffic industry?
Olson: Oh, yeah. We kind of instantly realized that this was changing the whole game. Part of the anxiety of it was you didn't know, “How far did this go? And what was the next target?” Everybody was expecting a next target, which after the United Flight (93) that they took down in Pennsylvania, thank God, nothing else did happen.
But for those several days before the airlines got back in the air, probably the weirdest thing was (that) we considered it (as) the airport did not close, the airspace closed. So we still did all of our daily inspections of the airfield and we still maintained security. We operated the airport as if it was normal. However, there was no traffic.
The weather, I don't know what it was like here, but the weather down there was one of those crisp, early fall days where the sky was that just beautiful clear blue and you could see a million miles, and it was extremely strange to have a day like that and see no contrails in the air. But every once in a while, you would see one contrail and you knew that whatever that was, it was a military airplane. So it was a strange period of time.
My wife was at home, and I called her and said, “Hey, turn on the TV.” I had one son that was about 3-plus years old and the other one had been born the previous November. I was talking to her about this, and she said she just sat there and watch the news and cried, and I said, “I never realized that you sat and cried.” So that was an interesting thing to learn 20 years later.
How long did it take before planes could start returning to the sky?
Olson: I remember that the airlines were grounded completely, and I can't remember exactly how many days that was. But I remember the airlines got back in the air first, and then it was a number of days before they let any general aviation traffic into the air. I went and grabbed my logbooks, because I was still flying quite a bit at that time, and I have a log entry on Sept. 15, where I went up. I think I went up and flew just because we could, and I was not quite “instrument-current” so I actually hired an instructor and took a flying lesson because that was the only way that I could get in the air.
Did you do that to bring yourself to some sort of normalcy?
Olson: I did it because you couldn't the day before. When you become a pilot, the freedom to fly is a very treasured thing, and when the government says you can't fly, then you want to all the more. So that was the first day that I could fly, so I was going to find whatever way I had to to get back in the air. For many years after that, I went flying on Sept. 11 as kind of my own personal commemoration.
What other changes in the wake of 9/11 were the most significant for the airport operations?
Olson: The impact on the airport was pretty drastic, and pretty fast. The economics changed because of the security time. All kinds of things changed, and everything had to adjust to whatever that new normal was.
The day after 9/11, we had service from an airline called Chautauqua Airlines, and they were flying as a US Air carrier, a regional carrier for US Airlines. They had direct service from Evansville to Indianapolis, and we got notice from Chautauqua on Sept. 12 that they were terminating that service. Before 9/11, we had a Trans World Express carrier that had about nine flights a day to St. Louis. That disappeared after 9/11, because the time with all the extra security measures – the time that it took to go through screening, and you had to arrive at the airport early go through screening, all those extra security measures – you could jump in your car and drive to St. Louis in less time. So that market just instantly dried up.
The other kind of startling immediate aftermath was the National Guard doing security inside the airport. You had soldiers in full camouflage uniforms walking around with machine guns, basically M-16s. So that was a little different.
Yeah, I can imagine that would take a bit of getting used to. Is it hard to believe that 20 years have passed since that day?
Olson: It is, and that has interesting implications, the span of time. Because in subsequent years, there were attempts at terrorism: there was the shoe bomber and there was the underwear bomber that everybody in the industry now calls “Captain Underpants.” But those were things that happened, and they had implications for aviation security and the screening process. And because it's been 20 years, in general passengers don't remember those specific incidents. So they may encounter something in the screening process and get upset by it, not remembering that this thing that happened 18 years ago, or 16 years ago, or 20 years ago. They don't remember why some of those security procedures are in place.
So would you say that because of Sept. 11, it's much safer to fly now?
Olson: Oh, definitely. Certainly the industry reacted and the governmental agencies reacted, and security now is leaps and bounds ahead of where it was. I carry a little Swiss Army knife with me just about everywhere I go, and the blade is about 2¾ inches, and before 9/11, I could take that on an airliner. You just take it out of your pocket, put it in the little bin and it goes through the X-ray machine with your keys, and then on the other end, you just put it back in your pocket. That definitely doesn’t go today.
What's it like now to think back on that day and how much time has passed?
Olson: When you put something 20 years in the rearview mirror, some of the sharp edges go away. But I can tell you that in going back and refreshing my memory about this, and looking in my logbooks and things like that, the sharp edges just come right back.