How Flight 93 Changed Security Forever

On the 20th anniversary on 9/11, I’m re-sharing my most popular post.

The events of September 11, 2001, present issues in security that are worthy of thorough examination still today. I’ve spoken on the subject and written elsewhere at length about different approaches to securing our nation’s aviation system. Debates on the topic continue 19 years later. 

Today, on the anniversary of the tragic events of 9/11, I choose to reflect on one security success that took place on that awful day. 

When the passengers of United Flight 93 learned via telephone calls to the their loved ones of the fate of other hijacked aircraft that morning, they made the bold decision that they would have to take matters into their own hands. They became the first response to the coordinated hijackings that will be in our consciousness forever.

In retrospect, it may seem like an obvious decision: two aircraft had been flown into the twin towers at the World Trade Center. They seemingly had no option. Yet that’s not entirely true. The idea that their captors, too, were bent on suicide wasn’t a necessarily a foregone conclusion. Could the reports they were getting be inaccurate?It all seemed so irrational that disbelief might have understandably taken hold, especially in the moment. “No,” they might have reasoned, “maybe they’ll land this plane and make demands.” After all, that’s how most hijackings went, wasn’t it? 

But the courageous passengers on Flight 93 weren’t taking chances. Instead, with a characteristically rebellious American spirit, they took on the hijackers, taking their fate into their own hands, giving everything they had to try to overcome their intended murderers. Men named Beamer, Bingham, Glick, and Burnett led their fellow passengers on mission based on the premise that they simply refused to be passive victims.

We know the outcome. Cockpit recordings prove that they somehow made it through the cockpit door, overcoming armed terrorists and ultimately forcing the aircraft to the ground in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where it could do no additional harm.

The terrorists’ intended target was most likely the U.S. Capitol Building. The image of an aircraft crashing into its majestic dome is almost impossible to register. But for those heroes on United 93, whose actions secured it target from disaster, we today would be dealing with yet another horrific memory.

In the months and years following 9/11, other aviation-related attacks were thwarted by passengers who—thanks to the lessons of Flight 93—understood that they, too, had to take matters into their own hands. 100 days after 9/11, the Shoe Bomber, Richard Reid, was prevented from carrying out the bombing of an American Airlines flight by passengers and heroic flight attendants (including my friend, Hermis Moutardier) who fought back. Years later, the so-called Underwear bomber was also stopped by passengers unwilling to allow a terrorist to decide their fate.

20 years on, the American public understands that in the fight against terrorism, they might become the front line of security against a sudden attack. Fortunately for all of us, they have understood that, at any moment, the rallying cry “Let’s Roll” might become their charge.