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Wednesday, August 14, 2002

Grounding the Planes

Best of the Web links to these USAToday stories about the grounding of airline flights on September 11. The Washington Post ran a story sometime earlier this year, or late last, attributing that decision to Norm Mineta. The Washington Post ran a story sometime earlier this year, or late last, attributing that decision to Norm Mineta. I can't find it on the Post's site, but here it is in the Contra Costa Times. I later saw the decision credited to deputy FAA Administrator Monte Belger. But the USA Today story makes it sound as if it was the near-simultaneous decision of a bunch of people, beginning with air traffic control in New York. (And you might want to consider how that ties in with this Den Beste post; scroll down to the part about Thompson to get to the nut, then go back up and read the whole thing.)

Of course, once one person had made a decision, it was a lot easier for others to make the same one, thinking, "Well, they're closer and must know something I don't" or "Things must really be bad if they're doing that---I'd better do the same thing."

These articles raise questions (and answer a few) about what happened that day, when everything was happening so fast. For example, after Flight 93 had crashedthe media was still reporting a plane in the air, heading toward DC. Was this just that the implications of 93's crash hadn't filtered to the news desk, or was there another plane? This kept me up for a couple hours (into the early morning, Sydney time). Was it Delta 1989 (mentioned in the article) that fueled the reports?

I also vaguely remember reports of a hijacked aircraft over the Pacific, which was actually a wacky chain of errors that nearly led to a Korean airliner getting shot to shit over Alaska.

But there were other questions that the article didn't address. There were odd little incidents that supposedly took place that day, and then they were forgotten about in the general chaos and mourning that followed. Every once in a while I think of one of them, and wonder what happened. For example, one of the grounded planes landed in St. Louis, and two of its passengers took an Amtrak train from there, bound for San Antonio. Federal agents boarded the train and took off two men carrying hair dye, box cutters, and $5,000 in cash.

What happened to those guys? Turns out they were Indians, though they had Arabic names. One of them pleaded guilty to charges of credit card fraud. And why were they carrying box cutters? Well, it turns out (says that last link) that they had just been fired from their jobs at a newsstand. They needed box cutters in that job, and naturally when you are poor immigrants, you don't have the money to throw away necessary tools and so you take them with you when you fly cross-country. Enjoy the quote from the lawyer about how his client wasn't a terrorist, but was heading for a "new life" (of credit card fraud). Of course there are accusations of racial profiling.

UPDATE: Instapundit reader Gary Hudson says grounding the planes did more harm than good. He reasons that hijacked aircraft aren't going to obey orders to land, and so it doesn't do any good to land all the planes. Gary's hindsight is excellent; where was he with it on 9/11?

On 9/11 they didn't know how many planes had hijackers on them, including hijackers who had not yet made their moves. It's also possible, I suppose, that the terrorists didn't count on all planes being grounded, and had planned something for later in the day, maybe on the West Coast.

And any planes (and remember, we don't know how many there are) headed toward their targets anyway, on their regularly scheduled flight plan, will go off course with only minutes to impact---far too late to send an interceptor.

Furthermore, as the article makes clear, it was hard to distinguish (and I can't figure out how this is so) between Delta Flight 1989 and United Flight 93, right behind it. They thought they heard the hijackers talking on the radio on Flt 1989. It was only when the two had separated, because the Delta pilot obeyed an instruction, that they knew which one had been hijacked.

And finally, we just didn't know what the hell was going on. Everything was happening at once, and it sure seemed as if the sky might fall. The air traffic controllers couldn't know whether we were under threat of imminent military attack, or if the hijackings were it for the day.

Grounding the planes was a good decision (though I must admit it surprised me at the time). Now whether they needed to be grounded for three days afterward is another matter.