Airport CEO remembers 9/11, changes to security

As American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 were heading toward Manhattan’s Twin Towers, Allan Penksa and millions of others around the nation were already at work.

At the time, Penksa managed Venango Regional Airport in western Pennsylvania. When news came of the attacks, Penksa’s eyes focused on the television.

“My brother worked in the World Trade Center at the time, so it certainly had my full attention,” Penska said over the phone. “And he was one of the lucky ones. He was able to get out before the building collapsed.”

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Penksa started his airline industry career in 1987 and took over as CEO of Gainesville Regional Airport in 2007.

“Just a terrible thing, to think that people had such hatred for the U.S. at that time,” Penksa said.

All flights were immediately grounded that day and the skies were locked down. Penksa’s brother-in-law found himself stuck in the Midwest and unable to rent a car. He and several others at the airport ended up renting a motorhome and drove back East.

“You knew exactly when that happened that things were going to change―one way or another,” Penksa said.

National Guard troops soon arrived at Venango Regional Airport and other airports around the country to ensure protection. Security blocked off sections of the parking lot in case of a car bomb or other improvised explosive.

“Obviously, measures were put in place to harden airports almost immediately,” Penksa said.

And those measures adapted over time.

Now, 20 years later, air travelers know what to expect before boarding a flight. Choke points force everyone into lines. One by one, travelers take off their shoes and belts, find an empty bin for their possessions, empty their pockets and enter full body scanners.

Experienced travelers plan ahead with slip on shoes, no spare change jingling in their pockets and perhaps no belt. Inexperienced travelers frantically organize belongings and pat down all their pockets for forgotten items.

In 2001, airport security checked passengers and bags, but the list of prohibited items was shorter.

“With 9/11, the biggest thing was not airport security, because the box cutters that the terrorist took on board were legal,” Penksa said. “You could take certain size blades and tools and things of that nature in the cabin.”

In November of 2001, the government created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) under the guidance of the Department of Transportation and, as of 2003, the Department of Homeland Security.

Penksa said the TSA was a more professional, sole-purpose agency that propelled airport security to new levels―a forced change brought on by 9/11.

However, airport security had always been a problem, Penska said, referencing hijackings throughout the past century.

“We had tons of skyjackings, hijackings, back in the 50s, 60s and 70s, and so this was nothing new,” Penksa said.

But no one had used multiple airliners simultaneously as weapons of mass destruction against people on the ground.

In 1961, hijackers forced a Portuguese airliner to circle Lisbon, dropping political leaflets before a general election, and then fly to Morocco to land. Only then did the aircraft and passengers return to Portugal.

In 1972, three men threatened to crash a hijacked plane into the Oak Ridge Nuclear Reactor in Tennessee. After 30 hours and more than 4,000 miles flown in three counties, Cuban police arrested the men.

In 1983, four men took over a Bulgarian airliner. After the pilot tricked the hijackers to think the plane had landed in Vienna, Austria, but instead landed in Varna, Bulgaria, where commandos stormed the aircraft, killing one and arresting the other three.

In an act of narcoterrorism, Pablo Escobar blew up Avianca Flight 203 over Bogotá, Columbia, in 1989, killing 110 people.

Even as far back as 1955, bombs threatened air travel. Jack Graham hid a bomb in his mother’s luggage before she boarded a United DC-6 flight from Denver, trying to collect life insurance. The bomb killed all 33 passengers and crew.

Penksa said this history is sometimes lost on people who think of the security as bothersome and unnecessary, especially younger travellers.

“I would see it differently because people in the industry are much more familiar with the things that have happened and how they happened and what was necessary to make sure it didn’t happen again,” Penksa said.

He admits that air travel can be difficult. You have to remember what to pack in which bags and how many ounces of liquid to carry on, and arrive at the airport early.

“Some folks may think that it’s made air travel something that is stressful, and yeah, in a way, it has.” Penksa said. “We understand that.”

But the safety is worth the cost, he says.

“It’s an asymmetric threat that is extremely important to counter, and so it has cost billions and billions of dollars to do this,” Penksa said. “But I think everyone would agree that it’s certainly a much safer environment.”

Alan Penska - Gainesville Regional Airport CEO

His advice is to have a little patience and understanding, because security is necessary.

“You might feel singled out or you might think it’s invasive at times, but there are people that are salivating at the opportunity to do something like this again,” Penksa said.

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