Sky Talk

9/11: “I just couldn’t even believe it.”

This article was originally published on September 11, 2011.

It was the type of phone call that an airline executive never wants to receive.American Airlines CEO Don Carty was at his Highland Park home, getting ready for another day at the office, when he received the call from the company's operations center telling him that one of their planes might have been hijacked.

“I hung up the phone and my wife was saying, ‘What was that about?’ And I said, ‘I think we've got a hijacking,’” Carty said during an interview at his Dallas office last month, recalling the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

As he answered his wife's question, he heard a television news report that a small plane had flown into the World Trade Center.

“My stomach just sank. My wife said to me, ‘Oh my God, is that your plane?’ And I said, ‘No.’ Like if I said no, it wouldn’t be true. But I just knew it was true. I just couldn't even believe it.”

During his car ride to American headquarters on Amon Carter Boulevard in Fort Worth, he got a call from United Airlines CEO James Goodwin.

“‘Are you missing an airplane?’” Carty recalled Goodwin asking. “And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘So are we.’”

Carty’s panic grew in the minutes after the first plane hit the World Trade Center.

He got a call from his wife, telling him that a second plane had hit the towers, and then another from the operations center saying a second and possibly third American plane had gone missing. (The third missing plane was eventually attributed to a pilot inadvertently turning off a transponder.)

Goodwin called back to tell him that United was also missing a second plane and that its security personnel said it could be part of a terrorist plot involving about 20 planes.

By the time Carty and his executive team assembled at the airline’s operations center, a plane had hit the Pentagon and they were faced with the unthinkable for an airline that operated 2,500 daily flights.

Should they ground the airline?

No one could reach Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta - he was in a bunker with Vice President Dick Cheney - to tell the government what American wanted to do, Carty said.

But after finally reaching FAA Administrator Jane Garvey, American and the other U.S. airlines all had their planes land immediately at any airport.

Confusion reigned in those early hours.

At the time, Carty thought that both airplanes that had crashed into the towers were American planes and that the one that crashed into the Pentagon was a United plane.

But while he was talking to Mineta, who made contact with the airlines later that morning, Carty realized just how much was unknown about the planes and the attacks.

“I asked him whose airplane flew into the Pentagon and he said, ‘We don't know.’ And my adrenaline was high and his adrenaline was high and I said, ‘For God sakes, Mr. Secretary, why don’t you send someone up to look?’

“I was sort of angry, frustrated with him and there was a long pause. ... He finally said, ‘We’ve already tried that. You can't tell.’ And I remember just thinking, ‘Oh my God,’” Carty said.

Once the initial crisis had passed, Carty spent the next few days getting the airline back in the air. Airplanes were scattered all over the U.S. and Canada.

He also spent a lot of time and energy on security and discussions with the Transportation Department about airport and airline security measures that were going to be put in place.

Looking back, Carty talks proudly about how American's employees responded on 9-11. But the decade after the attacks has been tumultuous for the airline industry. Carty would resign from American in 2003 after the disclosure that the airline’s executives had received bonuses and perks as union workers took pay cuts to avoid bankruptcy.

He is now chairman of Virgin America.

“The profound effect that 9-11 had on thousands and thousands and thousands of people in America has probably never really been measured,” Carty said. “It’s huge. I think that is part of the reason why it stays with us.”

Andrea Ahles: 817-390-7631, @Sky_Talk