The early morning of Tuesday September 11, 2001 was like any other back then, I was at my desk at United Airlines (UA) in the refunds/ticketing (WHQAK), department. I had a stack of unused tickets to process refunds, some letters and faxes to read to check on some customer and travel agency inquiries.
And then the bad news came in, first via a co-workers AM radio of the World Trade Center attacks (and one of those was a UA flight), and it was just surreal. I was 25 years old with only one year of experience at the airline at the time but I had buried my brother just that May so I thought I knew pain and sorrow. But that was on a personal level, I never had experienced anything like this.
Those of us in that office saw the chaos in a flurry of interoffice memos, we listened to that radio and heard what was going on, this was really close to home, especially when we didn’t know where UA flight 93 was headed and then once it crashed in Pennsylvania, then it all sunk in.
That sunny, warm morning these attacks were personal, customers we knew perished, coworkers who worked “onboard” who wouldn’t come home. And all the innocent people in between who suffered due to the attacks that day.
And I guess that’s why all these years later I still feel affected by that act of terrorism. At that time many of my friends were in the airline business, some who worked for other airlines, that was our life, we worked with pride and felt fortunate to have the jobs we had.
All that changed after that day, the way we looked at the world and the way airline employees were treated both by customers and ownership. We took pride in being a “Legacy” carrier but it was never the same.
Initially there was shock and awe and then soon after a week of silence from no flights that week to a lot of work for the rest of that year and even into the next. I processed more unused tickets than I could count (for the week that there was no commercial air travel), boxes of boxes of them and as the rest of the world moved on from September 11th, us airline workers were consumed by it. Many airlines laid off lots of workers (I was very close to being let go around Columbus Day), our workloads increased and as time went on our benefits decreased.
I went from working in a bustling office full of friends to a cavernous, half empty office with sadness and a few overworked coworkers. That Christmas was just the saddest thing and I know we weren’t alone in our sorrow but our livelihoods were now at stake.
From that day forward so many rules changes, we dealt with the Department of Transportation first hand (which was rarely fun), so many new rules were out of our hands but we had to deal with them.
Granted several of the large US airlines weren’t run efficiently and now they were pushed to shape up and quite of few airlines worldwide couldn’t keep flying. Not to mention less passengers which lead to less planes which led to less employees.
Over the next few years it seemed like a wave of people being let go happened almost yearly until finally what was left of my group was told we were being replaced by a third party vendor in India in January of 2006.
I was working two jobs by then because there had been wage cuts because the airline filed for bankruptcy in December of 2002.
By the time I left UA in the fall of 2006 the airline was a shell of itself (since September 11th the airline went from 103,000 employees to under 60,000), though honestly there were financial issues prior to September 11th, everything was more transparent afterwards.
For me September 11th was definitely a watershed moment of how things were prior and afterwards. I think those of us who went through it are better people but the challenges we went through mean we never take Sept 11th lightly and we truly “will never forget”.
Filed under: Chicago