Current Issue

Sept.14, 2011

Vol. 112, No. 1


Thoughts on a tragedy: Lessons learned in the decade since 9/11

Published in the September14, 2011, issue

Resilience of co-workers

By Jeff Smisek ’76

Courtesy 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.

Illustration: Francesco Bongiorni

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.

Post Comments
4 Responses to Perspective

Peter Suedfeld '63 Says:

2011-09-13 09:23:43

Let me quote: "The Constitution is not a suicide note."

Leanne Tobias *78 Says:

2011-09-13 11:09:30

Chris and I attended the Woodrow Wilson School at the same time, so I especially appreciate his wise words. In this piece, Chris has drawn lessons from September 11 that will allow us to move forward together more powerfully and effectively. Chris's advice on information sharing and coordination within and between groups is relevant in numerous settings, ranging from the family, to the workplace, to companies and government agencies, and between allies.

John Mason '66 Says:

2011-09-27 09:30:02

The sad events of September 11 have been used to underwrite the war in Iraq, with its fiction of WMD's; the erosion of civil liberty, under the peculiar use of "homeland" to refer to our country; and the use of torture by Americans, with expressions of contempt for the Geneva Convention. It is painful to contemplate.

John McKenna '57 Says:

2011-09-27 13:51:07

Because I teach theology, I refer my comments about 9/11 to God with Moses in the Exodus tradition of Israel's history among the nations in God's creation. Moses, it is recorded, had five objections to the Voice interacting with him in the event of the Burning Bush in Horeb. They were: 1) Who am I to go? 2) Suppose I do go and do what you have commanded me, they will want to know your NAME. What shall I tell them? 3) They will not believe me? 4) I do not speak well! 5) Send somebody else! I think as God's servant and Israel's prophet, Moses embodies with his objections the history of Israel among the nations as witness to the Living God the Lord is as the Great I-AM He is. Listening to all the questions and conjectures about God from those who survived and witnessed the event of 9/11 in our nation's history, I heard many of the same objections to Him. I believe we need to understand that He as the One He is as the Great I-AM He is will not be who He is without us, and thus I seek to understand why the event occurred just as Moses and Israel has to seek to understand why the Voice in the Burning Unconsumed Bush is who He is yet among us, who He is as our Savior and Judge. I trust PAW readers will want also to seek Him in these times!
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