Ground Stop – Risk Management on September 11, 2001

During emergencies learned ones make efforts using their intelligence.

Many tragic stories exist regarding the events of September 11, 2001.

Of interest for this post is the actions of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in grounding all planes either in or destined for American airspace on that fateful Tuesday morning.


By 9:30 in the morning on September 11, 2001, it had become clear to officials at the FAA that something was horribly wrong.

Unfortunately, they did not know exactly what.

They knew that two airplanes had crashed into the World Trade Center’s North and South Towers and that at least one other plane, American Airlines Flight 77, had likely been hijacked as well.

An official listening in on some of the hijackers’ cockpit conversations had heard someone say “We have some planes,” but no one knew exactly how many planes the terrorists had.

Moreover, no one at the FAA had ever had to contend with a multiple-airplane hijacking. The last one, 31 years earlier, had ended when Palestinian gunmen blew up three foreign airplanes in the Jordanian desert.

They did not know what to do, so they did what they could: They ordered a full ground stop of all the airplanes in the United States.

A nationwide ground stop — where no commercial, military or private airliner is allowed to take off and all planes in the air are required to land as soon as safely possible — was unprecedented.

The FAA had previously implemented mini-stops for specific airports, cities or regions because of weather or safety concerns, but to intervene in air traffic on such a wide scale was unheard-of.

On its own and before the FAA got involved on the morning of the hijackings, the president of American Airlines had ordered the groundings of all American and American Eagle planes on the East Coast; shortly afterward, when he learned that United Airlines was also missing a plane, he halted American service nationwide. United executives quickly followed suit.

After the FAA declared its ground stop, it had to figure out what to do with all the planes that were already in the air. It sent notices to pilots, called NOTAMS, instructing them to find the nearest airport and land their planes as quickly as possible.

As a result, Southwest Airlines sent planes to Denver, an airport it never used, and huge JetBlue jets bound for New York City landed in tiny airports in upstate New York.

At 10:31 a.m., FAA Administrator Jane Garvey sent a message to all international flights headed to the United States – turn around or land someplace else.

That someplace else, in most cases, was Canada.

Garvey worked with officials at NAVCanada, the semi-private organization in charge of Canadian air traffic, to devise a plan. Four hundred planes were already high above the Atlantic on their way to the United States. About 200 of those were not yet halfway across the ocean, so they turned around and headed back to Europe; the others were redirected.

Many of these (38 flights, carrying about 6,600 people) landed at the Gander Airport in Nova Scotia.

Others, instructed to stay away from Canada’s largest cities, landed in Deer Lake, St. John, Goose Bay, Moncton, Mirabal and other towns.

Some of these planes had to dump fuel into the ocean so they would be light enough to land; others, by contrast, were running low on fuel and caused a panic by telling NAVCanada controllers that they, too, had been hijacked. That way, their pilots thought, they would get landing priority.

At the same time, 34 diverted planes from Asia were landing in Vancouver.

By about 6 p.m. EST, the skies were finally clear.


We know now that there were no more terrorised planes in the air but at the time the FAA didn’t have that information and had to operate on incomplete information.

It remains in the eyes of McLeod Governance one of the more fascinating – and prudent – organisational responses to an unfolding event that one can think of.

This is the management of an unknown risk at its very best.

Post based on “Grounding of Planes on September 11, 2001” by the History Channel

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