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A special hourlong episode of WGLT's newsmagazine Sound Ideas. These stories originally aired Sept. 10, 2021, near the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

Bloomington Airport Director Sees 'Constant Evolution' In 20 Years Since 9/11

Frontier airplane on runway
Central Illinois Regional Airport

Of all the many shifts and twists in U.S. society since the twin towers fell 20 years ago, none may be quite as profound as in the aviation industry.

Now 35 years into his career, Central Illinois Regional Airport Director Carl Olson was an airport director on 9/11 as well, in upstate New York. Olson said his wife called and told him an airplane had collided with a World Trade Center tower.

He thought it was possible but not likely considering a plane that hit the Empire State Building decades earlier and headed for a TV just in time to see the second jet slam into the other tower.

Carl speaks
Jolie Sherman
Central Illinois Regional Airport Director Carl Olson, left, spoke to WGLT's Sound Ideas.

“We took a breath, looked at each other and got to work. We scattered and started managing emergency and backup plans,” said Olson.

The government ordered all aircraft to put down at the closest airport that day and the sunny blue autumn sky cleared of all planes and jets. For days no flights happened anywhere in the U.S. Olson said it was a first for someone whose life had been dedicated to facilitating air travel.

“It was eerie. Sitting in on the calls with the FAA talking about the ground stop and fighters being dispatched to patrol the airspace it was surreal,” said Olson.

Air travel eventually resumed, but changed fundamentally.

“Tremendous. Prior to this airport and aviation security was overseen by the FAA. And of, course, now we have the Transportation Security Administration which is part of the larger cabinet position, the Department of Homeland Security. We have new requirements for travel, new screening, and new travel processes. We have more Air Marshals in the air. We have new technology and those things even get into non-commercial aviation,” said Olson.

Despite all the changes, Olson said it’s amazing how rapidly and efficiently society, business, and people adapted. The response to the COVID crisis is a similar example, said Olson, despite admitted hardships in meeting both challenges.

“Aviation found a way to adapt and evolve and after a downturn came charging right back again,” said Olson.

Rigorous passenger inspections began, some would say draconian or undignified when people must partly disrobe. Sometimes there are more delays than before.

Yet Olson said he does not question the worth of the changes.

“It’s never going to be September 10 again. The changes that took place needed to take place. The fact the aviation system not just globally but especially here in the U.S has been as safe as it has been since September 11, I think, talks about the safety and security and integrity of the system,” said Olson.

Further, he said, the changes showed the system can still be successful.

“The threats that the country faced in 2001 are still relevant in 2021. In addition to that there are different types of threats that are circulating out there,” said Olson.

Yet, some changes would have come even without the sharp shove 9/11 gave air travel. Technology has shaped air travel in the intervening years since then in fundamental ways.

The pace of change may seem to be wrenchingly rapid on occasion and at times incremental, but Olson said it is continuous.

“I put one foot on either side of the line and say it’s both. Because the aviation industry is so large and so all encompassing, whether its e-commerce — ordering something and getting it to your house in 24 hours or six hours — or whether its flying around the globe (Bloomington-Normal to Asia is one stop), it’s fantastic,” said Olson.

Safety and maintenance, the performance and capability of aircraft, computerized ticketing and reservations that have made paper tickets a relic, he rattled off, all have come since 9/11.

“There is constant change, constant evolution every moment of every day,” said Olson. “It’s that at some points in time certain things the development is happening at a faster pace and then in other areas its building momentum and then it has a burst. It’s just that the industry is so large you see the flareups before you see the coals.”

As we leave 9/11 two decades behind, Olson says change is accelerating.

“We are entering an age of electric-powered aircraft. COVID and the pandemic have made more things touchless. It’s also happening on the aircraft and in back room operations of aviation companies, even in how passengers purchase and use air service on their phones,” said Olson.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.