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How 9/11 impacted Sea-Tac Airport and the way we fly

From the creation of the TSA to no more greeting a loved one at the gate, 9/11 changed a lot of things about air travel.

SEATTLE — The events of 9/11 had a significant impact on how we fly and how Sea-Tac International Airport operates.

On Sept. 11, 2001, airliners loaded with people were used as the weapon of choice that attackers flew into New York's World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. A fourth plane crashed into the field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania after passengers became aware of what was happening and tried to seize control of the plane.

What the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) did not know were those the only ones.

RELATED: Never forget: 9/11 memorial events across Puget Sound region

The emergency quickly swept over the country and even the world.

“I think about 6:15 to 6:30, we were in contact with the FAA, which said, we are grounding 4,000 airplanes that were in the sky,” said Mark Coates, senior airport operations manager at Sea-Tac Airport.

He says about 100 of those planes involved Sea-Tac. Most of the morning push was already in the air, and they and inbound flights ended up in other cities, closest to where they were when the word came down. 

“They were at Paine Field, Boeing Field, Portland, San Francisco, Salt Lake City,” said Coates. “They were stranded, passengers everywhere.” 

Some of those passengers were stranded at Sea-Tac trying to get out for days. Some elected to stay in meeting rooms on cots that were set up as part of the airport’s emergency supplies.

Coates says concourses were cleared out, gates pulled down and port police blocked the drives. 

And this was just Day 1 of months of change that would wash over Sea-Tac and air travel overall.

He recalled it was three and a half days before flights really started again, as airlines repositioned planes and crews. Passengers complained that airlines scheduled flights in the interim only to cancel them again.  

Security was tightened, originally using the companies that contracted with the airlines. Police visibility increased. Into October, National Guard members were at the airport and helping with security and adding to the security presence.

It wouldn’t be until November when Congress approved federalizing the role of airport security. Early employees of the Transportation Security Administration were told to buy black pants and white shirts as the agency didn’t even have uniforms or patches to sew onto them.

Before 9/11, you could clear security with no more than a magnetometer and security personnel armed with wands. You could go to the gate without a ticket to meet someone getting off a plane or send them onto their journey.

Coates says it was probably eight or nine months before what felt like a “new normal” set in. 

“Everything was different then,” Coates said. “We were all on alert.”