The Government Saved The Airline Industry 10 Years Ago – And Should Save The Economy Today

By | September 16, 2011

Like all of us observing the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, I found myself facing a flood of emotions and memories this week that I didn’t necessarily want recalled.  I know my friends in the airline industry felt the same way.

As the lead airline reporter at Reuters at the time, I was closely covering not only the human aspects of the tragedy, but the financial ones as well. In addition to coping with the terrible loss of life and the almost constant anxiety that another attack was imminent, we all knew that there was a serious financial crisis underway that could have caused many airlines to simply go out of business. The situation was incredibly dire.

I remember being amazed and yes, proud, that our government reacted incredibly quickly – just 11 days after the attacks – to set up the Air Transportation Stabilization Board.

Almost immediately, the government was able distribute $5 billion in cash and up to $10 billion in loans to all of our nation’s airlines as they faced a major cash crunch when people simply stopped flying. It was the right thing to do.

Now, a decade later, United Airlines and American Airlines – two of our national icons which had absorbed the remnants of early pioneers Pan Am and TWA – are still flying strong. I remember vividly the almost poetic moment when President George W. Bush traveled to O’Hare airport in Chicago on September 27, 2001, to honor the airline employees and spoke with the backdrop of two jets behind him from both of those airlines.

The photo remains a powerful symbol that we prevailed in the face of horror. Everyone who was at that high-security event – including hundreds of journalists like me – was incredibly moved and many wept. I later went to work at United as the company faced ongoing financial pressures and was forced into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, a situation that no one wanted to happen. But once again, it was also very fitting that another one of our American treasures, our legal system, enabled United to fix its balance sheet in an orderly way, saving the jobs of roughly 80,000 people.

The airline industry that was born in this country continues to enable commerce all around the world, thanks in large part to the actions of our government and the airlines themselves in the immediate 9/11 aftermath. While flying might not be a lot of fun these days, we should all be grateful and proud that we can still go about our business as we always have.

We should also use this example of leadership in Washington – in partnership with one of our major industries at a time of incredible duress – as proof positive that our government can and should step up to the plate during this current time of economic turmoil. Where there’s a will, there is definitely a way.

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