Nunatsiaq News
NEWS: Around the Arctic September 11, 2017 - 7:00 am

After 9/11, Nunavut air travellers saw huge changes

Tighter security brings higher costs, more preparedness


"I actually thought it was a movie," says John Hawkins, the Government of Nunavut's Iqaluit airport director, about how he felt on Sept. 11, 2001 when he turned on the television in his hotel room in Calgary, Alberta, where he was attending a annual national conference of airport managers and operators. Today, if a similar shut-down of air space were to occur, things would be different, he says. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)
Here's a look inside the new baggage security area at the Iqaluit International Airport, which now meets all security standards. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)
Here's a look inside the new baggage security area at the Iqaluit International Airport, which now meets all security standards. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

On Sept. 11, 2001, when Al-Qaeda terrorists flying hijacked aircraft killed roughly 3,000 people at New York City’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and on the aircraft themselves, those in charge at the Iqaluit airport had no idea what to expect as the airspace over the United States and Canada abruptly closed to air traffic to prevent further hijackings.

Sixteen years have now passed since John Hawkins, now the Government of Nunavut’s Iqaluit airport manager, at an annual national conference of airport managers and operators in Calgary, Alberta, turned on the television first thing in the morning and was quite confused by what he saw.

“I actually thought it was a movie. I flipped through a couple of channels to watch something else, and the same thing was everywhere. Then, I saw the second aircraft fly into the buildings. It was surreal,” he told Nunatsiaq News.

“I was at the conference with many of the people from the Nunavut airports’ operations, and I called a couple of them, just to see if they were seeing what I was.”

Some of the 370 aircraft heading into northeastern airspace, which had been ordered out of the skies, were expected to land in Iqaluit, while, at the same time, hundreds of travellers were grounded after the suspension of all air traffic.

“We opened up a phone line to Mike Ferris in Iqaluit, who was our deputy minister [of transportation], and was also responsible for emergency management,” Hawkins said. “There were a lot of questions back and forth, and a lot of compiling information about apron capacity, parking positions, fuel availability, stuff like that.

“The questions would all come in a bunch, and then there would be long pauses where there really wasn’t anything to do but stare at the TV, eat breakfast, stare at the TV some more. Then, there would be another round of questions. We kept the line open all day, just in case we missed a question, or couldn’t dial back for some reason.”

Though Iqaluit at first expected up to 15 trans-Atlantic jets and 3,000 passengers, the aircraft were accommodated at southern airports and none ended up coming to Nunavut.

But, since Sept. 11, 2001, air travel in the Canadian Arctic has never been the same—for airlines, airports or passengers.

Right away, the northern airlines suffered financial losses during the two-day shutdown and then would later try to get a share of a $150-million federal assistance package after 9/11.

Then, the airlines were hit with a long list of new expenses, such as the required purchase of bullet-proof cockpit doors for every aircraft and the payment of higher landing fees to help cover security improvements at airports.

Airlines must also now obtain special passes for employees who work on the airstrip ramp, even in the smallest northern airports.

Meanwhile, Ottawa created the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, or CATSA, the federal crown corporation responsible for screening passengers and baggage.

Transport Canada also now requires that airports update their emergency response exercises once a year so they are ready to react.

But Hawkins said the Iqaluit airport doesn’t maintain a plan on how to deal with a full shut-down of airspace.

“Those scenarios would be managed at the federal level, where they have a lot more information on hand to manage an event like that than they had in 2001,” Hawkins said.

Still, within the plush new passenger terminal of the Iqaluit International Airport, which opened last month, the entire lounge area could be made into what Hawkins calls an international “bubble” of aviation, simply by moving a few walls to receive passengers from an international flight or several flights.

Customs officials could now process the international arrivals so they wouldn’t be stuck in the airport but could enter Canada and go into Iqaluit.

There’s lots of space and places to sit in the new terminal, but no cots or emergency food supply, Hawkins said.

However, gates have been added on and the apron area for aircraft enlarged as part of the recent $300-million airport revamp.

The airport can now accommodate six wide-bodied and two narrow-bodied aircraft on off-terminal stands in addition to the four jets and six turboprops in front of the terminal.

“Accommodating large aircraft beyond those numbers would be possible,” Hawkins said. “But it would take a lot of juggling, and would compromise the space needed to safely maneuver.”

Behind the scenes at the new terminal, there’s also an advanced baggage system, built up to new standards put in place after 9/11, which brings bags upstairs for X-ray screening and then down again to be loaded on aircraft.

“Even if it’s not possible to eliminate every single breach, the possibility of weaponizing multiple aircraft at the same time is really [now] close to nil,” Hawkins said.

“Almost as importantly, communications have improved a lot, and the agencies making decisions already have much of the information they need, and they can get a lot more of it in short order.”

If a shut-down of air space occurred now, Hawkins said it would be extremely unlikely that airports in Nunavut would be expected to handle a big number of aircraft or passengers.

“Airport capacity is better identified at the national level, and the real-time available resources of the airports could be compiled much quicker than they were in 2001,” he said.

“E-mail on your phone is a huge advance over what we had back then. In an event where air space had to be closed, notification would be immediate, and would go straight to the right people.”

Today, when you travel by air through Iqaluit, you can still feel the legacy of 9/11—you pay more to fly, due, in part, to increased landing fees and the price tag for that improved security.

You need to ensure that your reservations are made in the same name that appears on your photo ID card, which is a challenge, because the spelling of Inuit names in English can vary wildly.

While packing, you must keep liquids and other prohibited items, like knives, out of your carry-on.

As well, you must show up for flights earlier and be prepared to go through security checks when heading to or from the South.

And, when you check in and board, you must now present that ID with a photo, and, once you’re in the air, you won’t be invited up to the cockpit and you can expect to be served meals that require no knives.

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