At 9:25 a.m. EDT on Tuesday, September 11, the Department of Transportation, via the FAA, ordered the U.S. National Airspace System closed to all civil flights at its 460 controlled and 15,000+ nontower airports. Canada’s Ministry of Transport followed suit within one hour.
Directed from the Air Traffic Control System Command Center at Washington Dulles, the FAA’s 17,500 controllers directed the landing of some 4,300 tracked airborne targets and ordered the diversion to Canada of 120 inbound overseas flights, while the remaining inbound airplanes returned to the countries of origin. Nav Canada landed the diverted traffic and its domestic airborne traffic before unplugging its service.
This unprecedented grounding of all civilian flights over an entire continent was subsequently described as 'organised mayhem'.
In the aftermath, attempts were made to find out how the grounding was actually achieved because there were no manuals or procedures for such an eventuality.
It turns out that when the thousands of Air traffic controllers needed to urgently find alternate landing grounds they achieved the task by ringing up airports near and far to figure out the best landing place for each flight.
Miraculously, this ad hoc and unstructured approach worked pretty well, especially when the controllers from different airports knew each other.
In making their recommendations the investigators noted that there was little point in making new procedures for an event that was unlikely to ever reoccur but they did note that there was value in the air traffic controllers knowing each other and that providing opportunities for them to socialise with each other might be the most valuable lesson for future unpredictable events.
Click on the video below to see an animation of US airspace being grounded. At the end of the video the only airborne flights are military.
Story Type: Insight
Labels: Unexpected Event; Team Building; Change Management
For Story Students
The Setting: 5000 planes carrying a million people had to be landed immediately
The Complications: Terrorist attacks and the unprecedented grounding of the entire North American airspace
The Turning Point: Air traffic controllers around the country instinctively knew to contact each other to manage the landings
The Resolution: The airspace was safely cleared
The Point of the Story: The airspace was safely cleared
How to use this story: When talking about procedures and processes for unlikely events and how it doesn't always make sense to create new processes.