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Personnel at United Airlines’ headquarters, near Chicago, are subjected to a surprise training exercise in which they are led to believe that one of their planes has crashed, and their experience with this exercise allegedly means they will be better able to respond to the 9/11 attacks. (Levin, Adams, and Morrison 8/12/2002; 9/11 Commission 11/20/2003 ; Studdert 5/26/2015 ; Becker 11/12/2015)
Manager Is Concerned that the Airline Is Unprepared for an Accident - Andy Studdert, United Airlines’ chief operating officer, has been concerned that, since it hasn’t suffered a real accident in over 15 years, United Airlines is unprepared to respond properly should one occur now. “I was worried we’d become cocky,” he will later comment. “We thought it couldn’t happen to us.” Around March this year, therefore, he told the airline’s other managers, “One of these days, I’m gonna come in here and I’m gonna do a no-notice drill.” (Center for Values-Driven Leadership 3/15/2012; Johnson 4/26/2012) A “no-notice” drill is an exercise that is conducted without its participants being given any formal advance notice of when it will occur. (US Department of Justice 5/21/2000; Inglesby, Grossman, and O'Toole 2/1/2001; Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education 10/15/2011)
Pilot Is Told to Pretend His Plane Is Experiencing an Emergency - Today, Studdert holds this no-notice exercise. Only a few people know about it in advance. Studdert tells a United Airlines employee who he will refer to as his “safety guy” to contact the pilot of a flight to Australia and give them some instructions. The pilot is therefore told he needs to call in during his flight and report an emergency. He should say there is an “uncontained number three engine failure, rapid descent, decompression,” but stop talking halfway through the word “decompression” and then go silent. He should also turn off the plane’s transponder. (Center for Values-Driven Leadership 3/15/2012; Becker 11/12/2015) (A transponder is a device that sends an aircraft’s identifying information, speed, and altitude to air traffic controllers’ radar screens. (Maraniss 9/16/2001) )
Airline Personnel Think One of Their Planes Has Crashed - The simulated emergency takes places this afternoon. At around 2 o’clock, Studdert is interrupted by his secretary, Maryann Irving, who rushes into his office and tells him a Boeing 747 has lost contact while flying over the Pacific Ocean. In response, he runs to the airline’s operations center. (Mccartney and Carey 10/15/2001; Center for Values-Driven Leadership 3/15/2012) Airline employees believe the apparently troubled aircraft has crashed. Some of them are upset and some become physically ill. (Becker 11/12/2015) “There are people throwing up in the hall; there are people crying; there are people just staring out the windows,” Studdert will describe.
Personnel Think the Crisis Is Real for 30 Minutes - Since no one in the operations center is able to contact the apparently troubled aircraft, Studdert opens the airline’s crisis center. (Center for Values-Driven Leadership 3/15/2012) The crisis center, according to journalist and author Jere Longman, is “a terraced, theater-like room that resembled NASA’s Mission Control.” (Longman 2002, pp. 77) Opening it, according to Studdert, is a significant course of action. When this happens, everyone working for the airline becomes responsible either for running the airline or acting to support the management of the emergency. This means that “3,000 people are put on an immediate activation.” (Center for Values-Driven Leadership 4/23/2012) United Airlines employees believe one of their planes has crashed for about 30 minutes and then Studdert reveals that the apparent catastrophe is just an exercise scenario. (Levin, Adams, and Morrison 8/12/2002) He gets on the crisis center’s communications link, which, he will say, “has got 170 stations and people all over the country, all over the world,” and announces, “This has been a no-notice drill; there is no event; everything’s fine.”
Employees Are Furious about the Exercise - The reaction to the exercise in the days after it takes place will be particularly bitter and Studdert will face severe criticism for running it. “I had the board members calling; I had the unions demanding I be fired; I had people telling me I’m the most evil person in the world,” he will recall. (Center for Values-Driven Leadership 3/15/2012; Johnson 4/26/2012) Some employees “wanted to kill me,” he will say.
Exercise Has Similarities to the Situation Experienced on September 11 - It is unclear whether Studdert’s exercise has a beneficial or a detrimental effect on the ability of United Airlines to respond to the hijackings 12 days later, on September 11. Studdert will claim that it prepares employees to manage the events of September 11 and reveals weaknesses, such as outdated phone numbers, which are quickly corrected. (Johnson 4/26/2012; Becker 11/12/2015) “It’s amazing, after 9/11… how many people came up to me and thanked me [for running the exercise], because we were ready,” he will say. (Center for Values-Driven Leadership 3/15/2012) It is possible, however, that it will cause some United Airlines employees to initially think the reports about the terrorist attacks on September 11 are part of another exercise, although accounts are contradictory (see (8:50 a.m.-9:03 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Levin, Adams, and Morrison 8/12/2002; Chicago Tribune 7/16/2003) The scenario of Studdert’s exercise in fact has some similarities with the situation that operations center personnel have to deal with on September 11. On that day, communication with Flight 175—the first of the two United Airlines planes that are hijacked—will be lost (see 8:51 a.m.-8:53 a.m. September 11, 2001) and the plane will have its transponder code changed, although the transponder will not be turned off (see 8:46 a.m.-8:47 a.m. September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 20-21) Communication will subsequently be lost with Flight 93—the second United Airlines plane to be hijacked (see 9:27 a.m. September 11, 2001 and (9:29 a.m.) September 11, 2001)—and that plane’s transponder will be turned off (see (9:40 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 38-39, 43)
Crisis Center Holds Quarterly Exercises - The United Airlines crisis center usually runs exercises four times a year. Most of these deal with safety issues, but security scenarios are also rehearsed, according to Ed Soliday, the airline’s vice president of safety and security. Typically, the 9/11 Commission will be told, these exercises “are scripted” and based around an act of bioterrorism or an international incident. United Airlines has also practiced hijacking scenarios, according to Soliday, although none of these dealt with the threat of an aircraft being used as a weapon. (9/11 Commission 11/20/2003 ; 9/11 Commission 11/21/2003 )
Those at United Airlines’ System Operations Control (SOC) center, near Chicago, have serious problems communicating with others outside their building, particularly using e-mail, for a period of about two hours. This is according to Ed Soliday, United Airlines’ vice president of safety and security, who is involved with the airline’s response to the terrorist attacks after arriving at the SOC at around 9:35 a.m. Soliday will tell the 9/11 Commission that, on this day, United Airlines “lost e-mail capability and some of their phone and cell service.” This, he will say, is “because everyone was on the phone trying to ‘call their best friend’ to talk about what was happening,” presumably meaning that the national telecommunications infrastructure has become overloaded due to increased traffic. Soliday will add, “For a couple of hours, trying to communicate out of the [SOC] building was impossible.” (9/11 Commission 11/21/2003 ) Soliday apparently does not state the particular time period over which United Airlines experiences these communication problems. However, it appears they may begin around the time of the first attack, since, according to the 9/11 Commission, shortly before 9:00 a.m., a United dispatch manager is unable to reach top company officials because the airline’s pager system “was not working” (see (Shortly After 8:48 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 21-22)
United Airlines activates its crisis center, from where it will respond to the terrorist attacks. (9/11 Commission 11/20/2003 ; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 22) Personnel at United Airlines’ System Operations Control (SOC) center, near Chicago, learned that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center when they saw the television coverage of the incident. Minutes later, they were informed that the WTC was hit by a hijacked American Airlines plane (see (Shortly After 8:48 a.m.) September 11, 2001). Shortly before 9:00 a.m., a supervisor at the airline’s maintenance office in San Francisco, California, called the SOC—the operations center—and said a United Airlines plane, Flight 175, had been reported as hijacked (see Shortly Before 9:00 a.m. September 11, 2001). (Mccartney and Carey 10/15/2001; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 21-22) United Airlines’ usual procedure when there is a crisis involving one of its aircraft is to isolate that aircraft and move the handling of it to the crisis center, so as not to disrupt operations in the rest of the system.
Crisis Center Is Activated in about 30 Minutes - The crisis center, which is located just off the operations center, is apparently activated sometime around 9:00 a.m. It takes about 30 minutes for staffers to assemble and fully activate it. When the center is activated, a representative from every division of the airline’s corporate structure has to report to it, and once they arrive they have predetermined duties they are required to carry out. Clipboards are therefore distributed to operations center staffers, which show a list of people who are needed in the crisis center that they have to call. A phone bridge is set up with the airline’s other crisis centers, which are activated around this time in San Francisco and Denver, Colorado. (9/11 Commission 11/20/2003 ; 9/11 Commission 11/21/2003 ; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 22) Patti Carson, United Airlines’ vice president of human resources, will later recall that after they see the live television coverage of Flight 175 crashing into the WTC at 9:03 a.m. on a screen in the operations center (see 9:03 a.m. September 11, 2001), “Without exchanging a word, every crisis team member in the room walked the 10 or 15 steps to the airline’s crisis center and took their positions.” (HR (.com) 7/1/2005)
Opening the Center Is 'the Single Most Significant Thing You Do' - The crisis center is “a terraced, theater-like room that resembled NASA’s Mission Control,” according to journalist and author Jere Longman. On one wall is a large screen on which United Airlines’ flights are displayed. (Longman 2002, pp. 77; Levin, Adams, and Morrison 8/12/2002) Other screens in the center show CNN and other TV news channels. (9/11 Commission 11/20/2003 ) Opening the crisis center, according to Andy Studdert, United Airlines’ chief operating officer, “is the single most significant thing you do [at an airline], because once that happens… everybody in an airline has a second job and that second job is to either run the airline… or act to support the crisis.” Once the center has been opened, “3,000 people are put on an immediate activation,” Studdert will say. (Center for Values-Driven Leadership 4/23/2012)
Different People Later Claim to Have Activated the Center - It is unclear when exactly the crisis center is activated and who activates it. Bill Roy, the SOC director, will say he is responsible for activating the center and he does this shortly after he learned a plane had crashed into the WTC. This is presumably sometime around 8:50 a.m. or shortly after. Roy will say that by around 9:00 a.m., he and his colleagues are in the process of activating the center. (9/11 Commission 11/20/2003 ; 9/11 Commission 1/27/2004) But Rich Miles, the SOC manager, will indicate that he activates the center and he does this apparently at around 9:00 a.m. He will say that after they saw the television coverage of the burning WTC and then learned that the North Tower was hit by an American Airlines plane, staffers in the operations center discussed what to do and considered whether to open the crisis center. One member of staff went into the center, and started turning on computers and other equipment. Miles will recall that after the supervisor at the airline’s maintenance office in San Francisco called, shortly before 9:00 a.m., with the news that Flight 175 had been reported as hijacked, he begins activating the center. (9/11 Commission 11/21/2003 ; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 21-22)
COO Is Authorized to Activate the Crisis Center - Other accounts will suggest that Studdert is responsible for activating the crisis center. Studdert will recall that sometime after 9:00 a.m., when he arrived at the operations center (see (8:50 a.m.-9:03 a.m.) September 11, 2001), he realizes that the airline is “in a crisis, and we immediately activate the crisis center.” (9/11 Commission 1/27/2004; Center for Values-Driven Leadership 4/23/2012) Furthermore, Ed Soliday, United Airlines’ vice president of safety and security, will indicate that Studdert is one of only a few people with authority to activate the crisis center. He will say that although the airline’s usual protocol is to obtain a “vote of three” before opening the center, both Studdert and he are empowered to order it activated on their own say-so. Since Soliday will arrive at United Airlines’ headquarters at around 9:35 a.m., this would suggest that only Studdert could order that the crisis center be activated on his own at the current time. (9/11 Commission 11/21/2003 )
Center Remains Operational for Three Weeks - The crisis center will remain in operation around the clock every day for the next three weeks. It will provide United Airlines personnel around the country with instant access to resource providers and key decision makers. (9/11 Commission 1/27/2004) The center was previously activated just 12 days ago, when Studdert ran a surprise “no-notice” exercise in which United Airlines personnel were led to believe that one of their planes had crashed (see August 30, 2001). (9/11 Commission 11/20/2003 ; Johnson 4/26/2012; Becker 11/12/2015)
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), created in late 2001 in the wake of 9/11, takes over passenger screening duties at US airports from private contractors. This step will come in for some criticism; for example journalists Joe and Susan Trento will write: “The $700 million annual business was replaced by a $6 billion budget in a new federal agency. Instead of twenty thousand low-paid private screeners, the country ended up with fifty-five thousand well-compensated government screeners.” They will also point out: “The law that President Bush signed included a provision that only American citizens would be allowed to work for the TSA. This meant that even legal green-card holders waiting for citizenship could not be hired. Thousands and thousands of competent and experienced screeners who had protected airline passengers over several decades were told they were no longer trusted.” Ed Soliday, former head of security at United Airliners, will comment, “The congressional nationalization of security at our nation’s airports turned out as everyone who had experience in providing security predicted—very expensive and ineffective.” Former head of security at the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) Cathal Flynn will say: “Firing those Indians, South Americans, others who were doing good jobs was wrong.… When you think about it, the illogic of it is fierce.” Another security expert will say, “Thirty-five thousand people lost their jobs for no reason whatsoever other than the majority of them were minorities and foreigners and did not look and speak the way Americans would typically like, which would be a white male West Point cadet standing at every screen.” (Trento and Trento 2006, pp. 165-6) A 2004 review will find that the new, better-paid screeners are worse than the old ones who are fired at this time (see Spring 2004).
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