Sky Talk

9/11: Losing colleagues and customers

Kent Powell poses for a portrait at Dulles Airport , Virginia, Sept. 8, 2016. Kent Powell was a customer care manager at Dulles for American Airlines on 9/11.
Kent Powell poses for a portrait at Dulles Airport , Virginia, Sept. 8, 2016. Kent Powell was a customer care manager at Dulles for American Airlines on 9/11. McClatchy

While everyone in Washington, D.C., was rushing home, Kent Powell was speeding towards work at Dulles Airport.

“Dulles has the longest runway of any on the East Coast, so we are the diversion capital for anything up and down the mid-Atlantic seaboard,” said Powell, a customer service manager who typically worked the afternoon shift. “So it occurred to me when they closed the air space in New York, I better go in and help.”

Powell was halfway down a Virginia state highway when he pulled over to the side of the road. He recalled that he had personally booked his office’s administrative assistant, M.J. Booth, on Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon, so she could attend a credit union conference for American in Las Vegas.

“She didn’t know how to use Sabre [the reservation system] and asked which flight she should take,” Powell said. They pulled up the flight crew list and joked that she would have a great time on Flight 77 since both of them knew the crew.

Even though Dulles had been evacuated, Powell was determined to get to American’s offices.

“I stepped back into our general manager’s office and they all just looked at me ... and all I said was, ‘M.J.?’ and they said yes,” Powell said. A colleague handed him the passenger list and I scanned through it. “I still have that copy,” he said. “I still have it.”

There were 64 passengers and crew on Flight 77 and Powell said they talked about how grateful they were that it was a light load since it was a Tuesday in September. It could have been much worse.

Later that morning, Powell’s supervisor asked him to help open an emergency customer assistance relief center, part of American’s protocol to proactively reach out to families involved in an accident. While setting up that center, Powell took a call from a local Catholic priest who said he was with one of his parishioners, Amy Newton, who believed her husband, Chris, was on Flight 77.

“That morning we didn’t, of course, know for sure which people were on [Flight 77], because we had no positive remains. But we had pulled the final passenger list and we did know that he walked through the electronic gate reader and had no reason to believe he was not on board,” Powell said.

He visited Amy Newton at her home around 12:30 p.m. on Sept. 11 and she asked that their two young children be in the room while Powell talked to her about what American did and did not know at that time. Powell had met Chris Newton several times since he was a frequent traveler on American’s flights out of Dulles.

“It’s something you hope you never had to do as a care team member ... it was very emotional,” said Powell, noting that Chris Newton was one of the nicest guys you would ever want to meet. “They were understandably incredibly upset. She had driven him to the airport and dropped him off curbside.”

In the days following the attacks, Powell kept in contact with Amy Newton, helping with their healing process by taking the family to the gate and jetbridge where Flight 77 departed from Dulles.

For Powell, the pain of losing several colleagues on Flight 77 has become manageable over time. And when he thinks about the time immediately after 9/11, he is able to reflect on some of the good things that happened then.

“I don’t remember buying a lunch for weeks after Sept. 11 because Delta, every airline and their brother, brought us baked casseroles and desserts,” Powell said, remembering how he was overwhelmed by other airline workers’ generosity and compassion. “It was a life saver. It helped underscore that all of us felt the significance of it and anytime there is an incident in this industry, when the chips are down, the competitive lines get dissolved, and it truly becomes one industry.”

Andrea Ahles: 817-390-7631, @Sky_Talk