Wings Magazine

Features Operations
Alternate Approach: A not-so-sunny-day in September

There is a shopworn joke in air transport that now aircraft largely fly themselves and airlines are paying pilots for 20 minutes’ work. Trouble is, you never know which 20.

November 3, 2011  By David Carr


There is a shopworn joke in air transport that now aircraft largely fly themselves and airlines are paying pilots for 20 minutes’ work. Trouble is, you never know which 20. A similar truism might be said of recent federal transport ministers. Like piloting an airliner, the responsibility for keeping Canada moving remains a great one. But privatization of Transport’s various pieces has shrunk the minister’s influence. Then along comes a sunny September morning in New York 10 years ago.

Reflecting on 9-11 with David Collenette – Canada’s transport minister at the time – you are reminded there was no precedent for what unfolded that tragic day or those that followed. Over a two-week period, Collenette became the first transport minister in history to shut down Canadian airspace, preside over the diversion of 238, mostly U.S.-bound, flights to 17 Canadian airports (the bulk, 47 and 38, arriving in Halifax and Gander respectively), negotiate the orderly return to the of air ahead of the U.S. and respond to the possibility of insurers grounding airlines even longer.

“It was one of those times when we all got it completely right,” Collenette told Wings, also giving credit to provincial and local governments that aided thousands of stranded passengers, the community centres and homes that took them in, and striking Department of Transport workers who laid down picket signs and returned to work to handle the crisis.

Collenette was delivering a breakfast speech at an international conference of airport executives in Montreal when the towers were hit. The minister was barely in a car racing back to Ottawa when the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) closed American airspace and Washington asked Canada to take in all overseas aircraft destined for American airports.


En route, with mobile telephone batteries running out of juice, Collenette and a team back in Ottawa made a series of decisions. Canadian airspace would be shut down at 10 a.m. Operation Yellow Ribbon would be launched to “clear the skies” and accept only overseas flights without sufficient fuel to return to Europe or Asia. Orphaned airplanes inbound from across the Atlantic would be kept away from Toronto and Montreal where possible and therefore away from potential New York and Washington target zones.
NAV CANADA had established its own command centres, and air traffic controllers were on the frontline of an unprecedented clearing and shutting down of air space. “People don’t appreciate the massive machinery that springs into action to handle a crisis like this,” Collenette noted. Still, it must have been lonely for the man who had to make it up as he went along. Did he, for example, have authority to shut down the airways?

“We were never challenged on that,” he said with a shrug. “You had to move quickly. There was no time for consultation. It was like coming across somebody who needs first aid. When you have to stop the bleeding you don’t muck about with meetings.”

The first nod of approval likely came from Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who waived the need for an emergency meeting of cabinet. “Why?” he asked rhetorically. “You’ve made all the decisions.” The next came at approximately five in the afternoon when Norm Mineta, the U.S. Transportation Secretary, called to thank Collenette, the government and the people of Canada personally.

Canada’s 9-11 response was a textbook example of crisis management, which went strangely missing during the subsequent SARS outbreak and 2003 northeast blackout. The decision-making process in the aftermath was less hectic, but important in managing the system, especially on Sept. 24, when insurers cancelled AV52 policies protecting airlines for third-party coverage. Collenette had already announced that Ottawa would step in as insurer of last resort.

There are several monuments and tributes to Canada’s 9-11 effort. For example, in May 2002, Lufthansa christened an A-340-300 “Gander-Halifax” after the two cities that welcomed seven company aircraft and approximately 1,500 passengers. At the time it was the only aircraft named after a non-German city (Lufthansa has since started naming A380s after cities it serves).

Missing is a 9-11 exhibit at the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum, which is odd given that the museum stands as a magnificent tribute to Canada’s aviation heritage. September 11, 2001, was a defining moment in Canadian aviation history. It was a day when a transport minister held the pieces together in the face of enormous pressure, and Canada again shone on the world stage.


Stories continue below