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Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta

September 16, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, welcome.

NORMAN MINETA: Thank you very much, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: I understand you were in the situation at the White House with Vice President Cheney when the decision was made to shoot down an airliner if necessary. What were the circumstances? What was the situation at the time?

NORMAN MINETA: Well, actually that decision had already been made before I was in, so I was aware that that was the situation but that I was not there during the discussion. I came into the operations center probably about…it must have been about 9:20 – between 9:15 and 9:20 – and so the decision about what to do with unaccounted aircraft was already made.

JIM LEHRER: At the time there was still one unaccounted for?

NORMAN MINETA: At the time…

JIM LEHRER: When you got there?

NORMAN MINETA: …there were eight altogether, three were, two were accounted for. So we essentially had six unaccounted for at the time and then – because there was a story about an airplane being down on the Ohio-Kentucky border, but that turned out not to be the case. So we were able to eliminate the others and then and got down to the point where there were four aircraft that we were looking for.

JIM LEHRER: And two of them had already…

NORMAN MINETA: … had already gone into the World Trade Center.

JIM LEHRER: The World Trade Center. And then the third was headed toward the Pentagon, and the word was that the U.S. military could shoot that plane down if it continued on an erratic target, is that what your understanding was?

NORMAN MINETA: As I understand it, the standing order was that aircraft were to be kept away from restricted areas. And so what the specifics about what that actually would be I’m not sure. But I know that as we were trying to account for the one airplane, there was this other that was coming up the river, and so there was some concern about that one.

JIM LEHRER: And your role, the Department of Transportation and the FAA’s role in this whole situation was tracking the airplanes, correct?

NORMAN MINETA: Absolutely. And at the time – it’s like anything else. When one of something occurs, it’s an accident. When two of the same things occur, it’s a pattern. When three of the same thing occur, it’s a program. We knew that, I had heard that, being in the operations center with the Vice President – something had happened at the Pentagon. We thought it was a bomb. And then there was some talk, no, it might have been a helicopter. Then it became apparent that it was a commercial airliner that had gone into the Pentagon.

So, then, at that point, not knowing which airplane it was, I then called the FAA, told them to bring all the airplanes down right now, get them to their destinations safely. And it’s really amazing – when you think about close to 2200 aircraft being up in the air at the time and through the work of the air traffic controllers, flight deck crews of the airlines, or private pilots – they were able to bring down close to 2200 airplanes in less than two hours.

JIM LEHRER: Well, a new development today, as you know, Mr. Secretary, the vice president said earlier today that there was an order put out by the president — the decision made by the president that if there was one of these airliners that seemed headed for a target, that U.S. military should shoot it down. You were aware of that as this thing was coming to a conclusion, correct?

NORMAN MINETA: Well, I knew that there was something that had already been decided, and that’s when this other airplane that was coming up the river — the question was: What do we do with it? And that was really outside of my jurisdiction, although I’m sitting at the table. I – you know – had nothing to do with that portion of it.

JIM LEHRER: The – what was the state of airline travel in the United States today? How did it go?

NORMAN MINETA: Today we had roughly 4887 flights at 12:50, so in terms of the operation of aircraft leaving and being in the air and landing, that represents about 65 percent of the normal flights that would be up say on a Sunday afternoon at 1 p.m. All of that went smoothly.

The problem is because of the reluctance of people to fly, probably about 20 percent of those seats were filled in any one of those airplanes. There were very… there weren’t too many people flying, and yet for these selected flights, there were still a lot of people at the airports because they’re now having to not only go through the magnetometer, but they’re also being wanded in terms of being there with their arms out and having someone go with a wand around them.

JIM LEHRER: What about international flights, are they – where are they in terms of …

NORMAN MINETA: International flights are allowed to take off. International flights inbound from what we call extraordinary airports are allowed to come in. Those…

JIM LEHRER: What does that mean?

NORMAN MINETA: Those would be the major countries…England, Scotland, Germany would have these flights coming in right now.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the new safety and security measures that you have in effect, are you – do you believe – is it fair to say that had they been in effect on Tuesday, these hijackings would never have happened?

NORMAN MINETA: No, I can’t really guarantee that that might have been the case because anyone who is intent on getting around whatever can do so. You know, there’s certain things that flag people. If you buy a one-way ticket. If you have no checked luggage. So those are the ones that the profile might say check this person out. So there are ways to do that. What we are trying to do now is we have put in these new extensive, stringent security measures. And what I have done is form two response teams, ready response teams. I have asked industry people to help us out on this.

We have our internal DOT FAA people working on airplane security, and another one on airport security. So on airport security, I’ve asked Ray Kelley, former Customs head, and chief of the LA, uh, New York Police Department, and also Chip Barkley, the head of the Airport Executives Association, and also Herb Taylor from Southwest Airlines to help us out on the airport security side. On the airplane side I’ve asked Bob Baker, Vice Chairman of Airlines; Duane Worth, the Captain of the Airline Pilots Association – and Bob Davis, an executive with Boeing and —

JIM LEHRER: What is their job?

NORMAN MINETA: … the Flight Attendants Association.

JIM LEHRER: What is their job?

NORMAN MINETA: … to advise us as we’re devising these rules or new stringent measures – to advise us on the practicality and whether or not it’s something that would really work.

JIM LEHRER: But as we sit here now, I would assume the average American should consider flying safe or not, right now?

NORMAN MINETA: I think it is safe, and I’ll be boarding an aircraft later this week as I make some travels of my own. And – but I would board a plane today. I think the measures we have are good. I was at Baltimore-Washington International Airport yesterday watching what was going on, and talking to flight personnel and talking to the airline people at the desk. I think we have an increased level of scrutiny, and that it is safe to fly.

JIM LEHRER: Now another issue, of course, is the financial impact this is having on the airlines. United Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Airlines, Continental Airlines, they’ve all announced 20 percent cuts in service. Continental is going to lay off 12,000 employees; there are fears of bankruptcy. What is the Bush administration going to do about this?

NORMAN MINETA: Well, as soon as this occurred on Tuesday, Wednesday I asked one of our top staff people to look at the financial condition of the airlines, because it was apparent that when you have airlines that collectively are taking in two hundred and fifty, two hundred and eighty million dollars a day, that all of a sudden to have those revenues cut off is going to have an impact on airlines when they have fixed costs of, let’s say, a hundred and seventy to a hundred and eighty million dollars a day. So that work got started on Wednesday. We’re looking at the financial conditions.

And on Tuesday I will be meeting with the CEOs and the CFOs, the Chief Financial Officers, of the airlines to take a look at this. There is a bill that is working its way in Congress dealing with the direct reimbursement to the airlines for losses they’ve suffered from Tuesday’s event, as well as credit, loan guarantees, or other kinds of credit being extended to airlines for making sure that their financial condition is maintained.

JIM LEHRER: So it’s something you feel the federal government has some responsibility for?

NORMAN MINETA: Absolutely, because the other problem is you have a New York State law that says airlines are liable for collateral damage. Well, the damage or the liability from the twin towers going down would stop American Airlines and United Airlines right in their tracks today.

JIM LEHRER: Back to the security issue for a moment, the one airport that has not reopened is Reagan National Airport here in Washington. There’s some speculation that it may never reopen, is that correct?

NORMAN MINETA: Well, I would not go as far as to say that it may never open up again. There are security considerations with the Pentagon, the White House, the CIA right in the direct flight path into Reagan National Airport. What we have said is that we will allow departures to the south and arrivals from the south of Reagan National Airport, but nothing is to depart to the north or arrive from the north at Reagan National Airport. The problem is that that limits the…

JIM LEHRER: But those aren’t even scheduled flights now that you’re allowing to arrive and depart, right?

NORMAN MINETA: That’s right. Right now we’re just trying to clear –

JIM LEHRER: Clear the airplanes out of there.

NORMAN MINETA: — the airplanes out of there.


NORMAN MINETA: But in order to try to plan for the scheduled operations of the airlines, they will have to all depart to the south or arrive from the south, and that would be very restrictive, and also in terms of types of aircraft that would then be able to use at the Reagan National Airport. But we will be doing that in conjunction with the National Security Council in terms of what our recommendations are.

JIM LEHRER: Who will ultimately make that decision?

NORMAN MINETA: That National Security Council will make that decision.

JIM LEHRER: This is not – this is going to be a security issue.

NORMAN MINETA: That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: Not a transportation –

NORMAN MINETA: That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: In general terms, adding up everything that you know and that is in place and in the works at this moment, has flying or traveling by airplane in this country changed forever?

NORMAN MINETA: It has. There’s no question from the time this Tuesday the…ultimately I think national transportation systems are going to be different, but aviation itself has dramatically changed. Where we used to think about hostage taking on an airplane, now we have to look at the airplane itself being the weapon and so it has changed aviation dramatically since Tuesday.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Mr. Secretary, thank you very much.

NORMAN MINETA: Thank you, Jim.