By Jeff Smisek ’76
Jeff Smisek ’76 is the president and CEO of United Continental Holdings Inc.
When the devastating events of Sept. 11 occurred, I was general counsel of Continental Airlines. That day stands out more than any other in my time in the airline business, not only because of the grief we felt, and still feel, for the lives lost in the attacks, but also because of the resilience and strength my co-workers displayed in overcoming the challenges we faced in the hours, days, and weeks afterward. The extent of my co-workers’ strength was the greatest of the many lessons I learned from the events of Sept. 11.
Now that I’ve joined the United Airlines team, I’ve come to appreciate even more the significance of that day. United was attacked directly: Two of the flights that terrorists hijacked — Flight 175 and Flight 93 — were United flights. We at United will never forget the people we lost in the attacks. I am proud of the way United co-workers banded together to handle the airline’s operational challenges after Sept. 11, even in the face of such an enormous loss.
The attacks taught all of us about the vulnerability of the U.S. airlines as businesses. In the weeks following the attacks, demand for air travel dropped precipitously, U.S. airlines were forced to downsize operations and capacity significantly, and we were forced to furlough tens of thousands of employees. While that steep drop-off in demand eventually abated and demand recovered, the Sept. 11 attacks were the first and most significant in a decade-long series of crises that have plagued the U.S. airlines.
Our industry has undergone important changes as a result of Sept. 11. The customers’ travel experience is very different from what it once was, with the introduction of the Transportation Security Administration and new security screening. Moreover, because of the devastating financial impact, almost all network carriers went bankrupt, and we’ve subsequently seen industry consolidation (including the merger of United and Continental), an intense focus on reducing fuel consumption and operating our carrier efficiently, and an increased emphasis on “de-commoditizing” the business — allowing customers to pick and pay for the bundle of services they wish to consume.
While so much about our industry and the way we travel continues to evolve following the terrible Sept. 11 attacks, the resilience my co-workers displayed that day — and the grief we feel for the co-workers we lost — continues to shape our culture to this day.