Traverse City News and Events

Twenty Years Later, 9/11 Recollections At Traverse City's Airport

By Craig Manning | Sept. 7, 2021

20 years ago this Saturday, at 8:46am EST, a Boeing 767-223ER collided with the North Tower of the World Trade Center and changed the world forever. 650 miles away in Traverse City, the reverberations of that earthshaking event were felt almost immediately – first and foremost at Cherry Capital Airport (TVC), from a grounded New York flight to 200 towed cars and massive changes in security. The Ticker hears from Stephen Cassens, airport director at TVC at the time, and Kevin Klein, the airport’s current director, about their recollections of September 11, 2001 two decades later.

Klein, working at the time as operations supervisor at Gerald R. Ford Airport (GRR) in Grand Rapids, was in the midst of his day off when he heard the news on the radio. Like many other Americans, he didn’t even consider, at first, that the United States might be under attack.

“I had previously worked out at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, right across from the World Trade Center,” Klein explains. “And my impression was that this was a small general aviation aircraft that had an unfortunate accident into the building. Because along the Hudson River, there are corridors that fly with general aviation traffic [along the river], and that building was higher up than some of the traffic on the river. Shortly thereafter, I called into the dispatch center [at GRR], and when I was on the phone with the airport, the second plane hit the tower. Then we knew it was more than just an accident.”

After the second plane hit, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gave the order to ground every plane that was in the air at the time. Across U.S. airspace, some 4,200 aircraft abandoned their flight plans to land immediately. As Cassens recalls, TVC got at least two of those unscheduled landings, including one flight bound from New York City to Minneapolis. Since the hijacked flights had originated from east coast airports, the TVC team had some concern about the New York flight.

“One of the things that my assistant manager at the time, Jeff Nagel, was astute enough to realize, was that we don’t want to bring those aircraft up to the terminal building,” Cassens tells The Ticker. “We don't know what's going on, because this is all happening without the information that we have today. So we had those aircraft parked in what we call ‘hotspots’ around the airport, away from the terminal buildings, and we dealt with the aircraft as if they were having a bomb threat.”

After parking the aircraft, the TVC deplaned all passengers, brought them to the terminal, and brought in a bomb dog from the Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Office to screen all the luggage onboard. Even once the luggage was cleared, TVC still had a terminal full of stranded passengers. The airport staff worked with local hotels to find rooms for each person, and a local pizza place even volunteered to deliver food to the airport to feed everyone.

Uncertainty and fear lingered at TVC – and over the entire U.S. air travel industry – for days, weeks, and months following 9/11. U.S. airspace reopened on September 13, but when it did, the experience of flying was almost unrecognizable from what it had been just days earlier. Rapidly, the FAA instituted strict new airport security measures, many of which remain in place today. The elimination of curbside baggage check-ins; the ban on anyone without an airline ticket getting past security checkpoints; the institution of pat-down searches or random luggage searches; the trend toward earlier arrivals for passengers. All these requirements date back to 9/11, and to the FAA’s scramble to close the loopholes that allowed terrorists to board four commercial flights.

Perhaps the most challenging new requirement for airports to meet was a rule that barred any vehicles from being parked within 300 feet of any airline terminal. TVC had to tow 200 cars and trucks out of its closest parking lot to comply with the rule – which meant that many locals who had flown out of TVC prior to 9/11 returned to Traverse City to find their vehicles relocated to a makeshift parking lot on a Coast Guard ramp.

Once air travel recommenced, TVC also had a small handful of security scares. One involved a pair of passengers who had been on the grounded flight to Minneapolis.

“When we went to reload the aircraft [for the stranded Minneapolis flight], there were two gentlemen that didn't have their bags,” Cassens remembers. “We were trying to figure out where their bags were, and we finally located their bags. And then their names came up on a no-fly list that was being issued. We double-checked their names and found that there was a misspelling or something, [and that they weren’t actually on a no-fly list]. But they were acting very suspiciously, so we did call in the FBI.”

One of the men, a passenger from Somalia, was ultimately arrested and jailed in Traverse City after the FBI got a warrant to search his luggage and found 150 pounds of khat, a recreational drug popular in parts of Africa and the Middle East but illegal in the U.S.

Ten days after the 9/11 attacks, security officers at TVC spotted a pair of grenades in a man’s luggage. The grenades were ultimately found to be non-functioning, belonging to a passenger who had been discharged from the U.S. Coast Guard in Charlevoix the night before; he told TVC officials they had been used in training exercises. The sheriff’s department seized the grenades – which had been in a checked bag and not a carry-on – but ultimately let the passenger take a flight out from TVC later that day.

Another key tidbit of TVC’s 9/11 story: The terrorist attacks occurred just as the airport was preparing to accept a bid from Hallmark Construction to build a brand-new 87,000-square-foot airport terminal. The project would nearly double the capacity of the terminal and resolve parking shortage problems TVC had begun to have during peak travel times. But with airline business cratering in the wake of 9/11, the airport commission had to decide whether to move forward with a project aimed at growth, or wait and see if the industry could rebound. Ultimately, the commission approved the project – leading to the TVC terminal still in use today.

“It was a big thing, that the commission chose to continue forward with building the terminal,” Klein says. “So many airports said, ‘We're not doing any capital development during this time, because it's such an unknown of what's going to happen.’ Our airport commission made a very bold move to move forward, and by doing that, they were able to construct a terminal – a $64 million project – basically with no debt, because no other capital projects in the country were moving forward.”

Building a brand-new airport terminal at that time also meant that TVC became one of the first airports in the country to have inline baggage screening. Where many other airport terminal lobbies were suddenly littered with auxiliary X-ray machines to handle the extra FAA security requirements, TVC’s new terminal design incorporated that extra technology behind the counter.

Those looking to honor the lives lost on September 11, 2001 can do so at a local 20th anniversary 9/11 memorial on Saturday morning at 8:30am. Hosted by the Grand Traverse Metro Fire Department, the event will be held at the Grand Traverse 9/11 Memorial Park (pictured), located by the Fire Administration Building at 897 Parsons Road. Those interested in attending are encouraged to park at the Career-Tech Center across the street.

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