The terrorist attack on Sep 11, 2001 personally affected journalism major and at the time flight attendant Sherry Chaffin.
She happened to be off work that day and was planning on exploring Chicago, where she was based, with a friend whenever she received a phone call from a fellow flight attendant.
“I turned on the TV just in time to see my second airplane crash right into the World Trade Center,” She said through tears. “It was just surreal.”
Chaffin explained she couldn’t have been on that plane if she’d been working that day, since the flight came out of Boston. However, a friend of hers, Jeff, should have been, but he happened to trade his shift with someone else that day.
“This poor guy was alive, but he suffered from that, because it should’ve been him,” Chaffin said.
Lots of Chaffin’s friends worked out of Boston, and she remembers them telling her one of the terrorists who hijacked the plane flew the route between Boston and Los Angeles often. She said he always sat in first class, closest to the cockpit. The crew had nicknamed him “googly eyes” because he was always staring at them, watching everything they did.
“The tip-off, in hindsight, was that here’s a man going from Boston to Los Angeles and he never had luggage. He didn’t even have a briefcase with him,” Chaffin said.
Up until this time, Chaffin’s training focused on hijacking scenarios. In the past, the pilot made sure the plane got on the ground safely and the flight attendants protected the cockpit.
“We had never, ever thought that our planes would be used as missiles,” she said.
After this, the flight attendant training changed and emphasized the security aspect. She learned self-defense and special FBI agents came in to teach them how to protect themselves and the passengers. She said her training made her feel like a cop and she learned to be on guard for potential threats. The main goal of a flight attendant is to protect the cockpit, Chaffin said, because if the pilot isn’t safe, no one is safe.
Planes changed as well. When she started her job, a little gold key gave her access to the cockpit and she often left the door open while she spoke to the crew.
“After 9/11, the doors became security coded and I think the rule was 10 seconds was all that door was supposed to be open,” She said. She met her responsibility of feeding the crew, but got the door closed as quickly as possible.
The crews removed curtains which separated first and second class, replacing them with netting so flight attendants could see the entire plane no matter where they stood.
“The problem with the 9/11 crews was that the crews in the back had no idea that the first-class flight attendant had just been killed and that someone was trying to get in the cockpit,” she explained.
After 9/11, Chaffin said she realized both the crew and the passengers feared for their safety. She flew to London, the connection for most Middle Eastern countries, most days and people didn’t like seeing people who looked similar to the terrorists on the flights.
“I understood their fear, and you can’t give a culture lesson to people on a flight,” She said, aware that most Middle Eastern people are not terrorists.
Chaffin said it’s common to have people who are intoxicated or otherwise not in their right mind on flights, which is dangerous in a post 9/11 world. She recalled what she believes to be a Southwest flight, after 9/11, where passengers killed a man off his meds who was trying to get into the cockpit. She said she had personal experiences with drunks and drug users who could’ve possibly been a threat to the security of the plane.
American and United did take 9/11 more personally, the terrorists hijacked their planes, according to Chaffin. However, even the smallest airlines sent out a flood of support.
“It was a privilege to be a flight attendant, and I think everyone who does that job loves the job for all the obvious reasons. So, everyone who does that job can just be empathetic,” she said.
Chaffin recalled going to the site of the attack a few months after with a friend to visit a makeshift memorial. She said she met a police officer who made sure only certain people got in. Those people included people with airline IDs.
“We went up there and showed him the ID, and he hugged us and we cried,” Chaffin said, choking up again. “And then everybody wrote their names and stuff all over this wooden platform. It was extraordinary.”
She said she’s still sad, looking back at that event. She described it as a wake-up call that the country can’t mess with people and not have it come back on them.
“If that doesn’t send the message that you can’t just have a bunch of idiots in charge, then I don’t know what does,” she said. She doesn’t blame one administration, but years of several administrations not finishing what they started.
Flight attendants are too savvy for a terrorist attack of this nature to happen again, according to Chaffin. She is sworn to secrecy about how else her training changed after the event.
“There’s certain things that the passengers shouldn’t know, and will never know, about what we’re doing to keep you safe,” Chaffin said.
Chaffin said the airplane is the safest way to travel, and flight attendants and pilots “have your back.”