One of the most unforgettable conferences was in Brisbane, Australia, in 2001, when the September 11 attacks unfolded at the end of the first day. Delegates were thousands of miles from the incident, but that did not lessen the impact upon all who were part of the aviation industry. Despite what happened, there was a collective decision to move forward with the event that year. Association members who were there recall their experiences.

It was about 10:45 p.m. in Brisbane. Some were heading to the lobby bar for one last drink, others were retiring to their hotel rooms for a night’s rest after the first day of the conference. Not far away, a group of friends were still at a restaurant, lingering at their tables, filling each other in on life since the last WAEA conference. The evening was winding down when someone’s phone rang. This was unusual.

First Response
Mobile technology was in its infancy, roaming was expensive and very few people had international calling plans, let alone received calls while they were traveling. Kent Craver, of Continental Airlines and vice-president of WAEA at the time (now with Boeing), and 40 or so people were seated in a more private area of the restaurant and could overhear the conversation: An aircraft had hit one of the Twin Towers in New York City. “Nah, that’s just a bad joke. That’s a bad joke in poor taste,” they thought. “But then another phone rang. And another. Then somebody’s pager went  off. The calls were coming in like a slow-motion wave,” Craver says. “People’s offices were calling to report that something big was happening.”

“The calls were coming in like a slow-motion wave. People’s offices were calling to report that something big was happening.” – Kent Craver, The Boeing Company

Coincidentally, there were several other WAEA parties being held at the same restaurant. Mary Rogozinski of United Airlines and Sue Luxem of American Airlines, both of whom were board members, initially thought it was a small plane that was involved. “We quickly learned it was a commercial plane, and rumors were spreading that it was United or American. The other tables were hearing the same thing,” says Rogozinski. After the news broke, the restaurant owner wheeled in a TV and put on CNN. That’s when they all watched an airplane collide into the second tower.

News of the incidents was spreading in the lobbies of the various hotels where attendees were staying, too. Sue Pinfold of Spafax was just returning to her hotel from a retirement party when her colleague told her what had happened. “At this stage, the only thing anyone knew was that a plane had crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. It wasn’t clear that it was a terrorist attack,” Pinfold says. “Everyone scattered to their rooms to turn on the TV. With the second aircraft, it was immediately clear that this was not an accident anymore.”

Midnight Assembly

That night, an impromptu meeting was called. With some still in their pajamas and some sleepy-eyed, current and past board members – Craver, Rogozinski, Luxem, Pinfold, plus Linda Palmer of Walt Disney Studios, Joe Carreira, then of AEI Music, Janice Daniello of Post Modern Group, Karen Schipper of El Al Israel Airlines, Al McGowan of TEAC, Joan Barker of Inflight Productions, Sarah Blomfield of Cathay Pacific Airways, Jim Snyder of Rockwell Collins, Ruth Rosenbrock of South African Airways and Patrick Brannelly of Emirates – gathered in the suite of then-president Sophie Vossenaar of KLM. The sheer size of the Twin Towers, with 110 floors of people about to start their workday, multiplied by two, suggested the scale of the disaster to those in the room. Brannelly had estimated that night – fairly accurately – that 3,000 people had died. “We realized that, while every single person was affected, several may have lost relatives, friends, business colleagues – or be suffering the agony of not knowing whether loved ones were safe. It would likely take days before the impact was known (and of course it took a lot longer than that),” says Daniello.

The question that night was whether to resume the conference, of which three days remained. The airspaces of the United States and Canada had been closed, and domestic Australian carrier Ansett Airlines, which many relied on for connecting flights from Sydney, was on the verge of collapse – which it did on September 14. It was clear that for the next few days, none of the 950 or so conference attendees were going home.

At some point during the discussion, all heads turned to the two board members whose airlines were involved. “We all looked at Mary and Sue [Luxem] and said, ‘Nobody in the room is as affected as you are, and we think your opinion has a lot of weight on what we should do,” Carreira recalls. The group agreed to cancel the next morning’s itinerary and resume the conference as scheduled in the afternoon. They would keep the exhibition floor open and run international news feeds so attendees could follow the situation. There was also a quiet room, and grief counsellors were brought in. Someone at Brisbane Airport offered to loan a metal detector arch, but the group decided that would likely make people more nervous.

Now that they had a plan, they had to get the word out. “We decided we needed to get to all the hotels; we needed to print a statement from the board and get it under each door of every hotel room we knew there were people from WAEA,” says Carreira. Association press officer Rob Brookler, Palmer and Pinfold, who were on the communications committee, got to work, and by about 5:30 a.m. had a completed statement in their hands. Board members ran off with copies to their assigned stations at the various hotel lobbies, stopping people on their way to breakfast to be the bearers of the news.

Knowing that for some members – Terry Steiner International (TSI), Cine Magnetics, Discovery – this literally hit home, the board made an effort to ensure they were supported. A board member was also assigned to console Rogozinski and Luxem, both of whom were still shaken. “It was good to have Al [McGowan] to talk with following the events. I was pretty sure it was the beginning of WWIII,” recalls Rogozinski. “We had a long walk through a beautiful park that morning. He and I remain friends, as do Sue [Luxem] and I.”

Carrying On

By about 1 p.m., the conference had restarted. Craver remembers finding it surreal that every person there, just by being part of the airline entertainment industry, had been affected. “People were going to their meetings, but not a stitch of business was being done,” he says. “It was just people meeting and talking and sharing and enjoying each other’s company. The feeling of being family – that resonated those next few days.”

“Competitive rivalry went out the window – we were all far from home, and just needed to continue with life as normally as possible.” – Sue Pinfold, Spafax

That afternoon, Pinfold, along with her peers Barker and Clare Josey of Rockwell Collins, got together to compare notes on what in-flight entertainment (IFE) content containing sensitive images needed to be pulled from aircraft. “Competitive rivalry went out the window – we were all far from home, and just needed to continue with life as normally as possible,” she says. “It needed to be done for our industry, irrespective of who the service company was.” Daily news was canceled, and most airlines removed Friends (shots of the Twin Towers between scenes) and Frasier (producer David Angell was aboard AA Flight 11). Those TV shows didn’t resume for nearly a year. “We then liaised with the other service companies there to make sure we were all doing the best for all airlines, anywhere,” says Pinfold.

That evening’s networking event at a wildlife park went on as planned. Attendees were promised they would meet kangaroos and koalas while swaying to an Australian bush band. The black-tie gala and awards ceremony that closed the conference also went on as scheduled. “We proceeded with the dinner, and I think people used it as an outlet following the tragedies,” Rogozinski says. As a last-minute addition, someone had laid black sashes across the banquet tables and set the background music to something with a New York theme. “We tried very hard to ensure that everything we did would be considered appropriate in light of these events,” says Daniello, who remembers spending hours in an edit bay at the conference center making changes to the videos that would be shown at the Avion Awards ceremony.

Home, At Last

By the time the conference was over, flights to the United States were departing again, but the schedules were all changed, causing a chaotic few days. Some had planned to stay the weekend in Australia, and by the time they got back, things had returned to a new, uneasy normal. “I remember surrendering my nail scissors at security, but being so glad that security measures were in place,” says Daniello.

Terry Steiner of TSI and her husband decided to make the best of the situation and went to Melbourne for an unplanned few days following the conference. “When people learned we were from New York, they went out of their way to show sympathy and welcome us,” she says. Upon returning home, Steiner learned that one of their neighbors had not made it out of the World Trade Center. “I’m not sure if being so far away made things better or worse. I do know it was comforting to be with my IFE friends.”

“Close to Home” was originally published in the 9.4 September/October issue of APEX Experience magazine.