The day that changed the world
There are two aviation-related events that we will never forget. We all remember where we were, who we were with and what was said.
The first occurred on 20 July 1969. When Neil Armstrong told Houston “The Eagle has landed”, we all held our breath, captivated by the courage, the technological genius, and the sheer scale of the achievement. Neil followed this with one of the most famous remarks in history—“one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”—and it seemed as if, as one, the entire world looked up at the sky and tried to see him taking that giant leap on behalf of us all, jumping down the ladder onto the surface of the moon.
On that day, we all dreamed about the power of flight to do good and unite the world.
The second event forever imprinted on our minds is 9/11. This cowardly terrorist attack on civilians is remembered for all the wrong reasons—for the destruction, the loss of life and that terrible feeling we all had that the world had changed forever.
At 8:45am, American Airlines Flight 11, travelling from Boston to Los Angeles, smashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York. United Airlines Flight 175 hit the South Tower just minutes later. A third plane hit the Pentagon and a fourth crashed in rural Pennsylvania.
United States airspace was closed at 9:21am, the first time this had happened in Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) history. All commercial flights were grounded and an hour later Vice President Dick Cheney issued orders to shoot down any commercial aircraft that was suspected of being hijacked.
On that tragic Tuesday, nearly 3,000 people lost their lives.
The knock-on effects were huge. The world economy was deeply affected and the New York Stock Exchange had to close for a week. Air travel dipped alarmingly too. And we’re still paying the price in terms of intrusive, uncoordinated and lengthy security measures.
It was hard to believe that aviation had been used as a weapon to strike divisions in the global village that it had made a reality. Airlines connect economies, cultures and families. That they were used to destroy these things is still very painful for all of us involved in aviation.
Despite the significance of the events, when they happened I never imagined that they would have such an effect on my personal life and my professional career as they did.
Some 20 years after he became the first man on the moon, I had the pleasure of meeting Neil Armstrong. He became a very special friend and we met every year with other aviation colleagues at a wonderful ranch in Wyoming. I have vivid recollections of Neil entertaining us with fascinating stories as we sat by a large, round fireplace. But it was Neil’s friendship that really provided the warmth as he recounted his many adventures, always as if it was just normal, routine business and always finishing with a knowing smile.
While the moon landing was significant on a personal level, 9/11 affected me professionally. On that fateful day, I was in my office in London preparing for the launch of the online travel agency, OPODO. The launch was just over a month away and as CEO I had a lot of work to do. But a colleague burst into my office and told me of a frantic phone call from New York. We went quickly to the Boardroom and watched the terrible event unfold on the TV.
Just over a month later there was another phone call from New York. This time, it was Leo Mullin, CEO of Delta Air Lines and also Chairman of the Board for the International Air Transport Association (IATA). He invited me to New York to meet him. At that meeting he offered me the job of Director General and CEO of IATA. He said he needed me to make the Association relevant and help turnaround the industry from the terrible, dark days of 9/11.
“You will have a blank sheet of paper, a licence to change everything,” he said. “We need you to lead a revolution.”