EAST WENATCHEE — Jim Huffman knew something was wrong from the look on Brett Pittsinger’s face.
The two were in the parking lot at the Red Lion on Sept. 11, 2001, headed into a morning Rotary meeting. Pittsinger had just received a phone call from his family describing airplanes crashing into New York’s Twin Towers.
“We went on inside and the TV was on, so then we saw what was happening,” Huffman said. “I didn’t bother going to the meeting. I took off for the airport.”
Huffman, who has been a Port of Douglas County commissioner since 1994, realized some of what the “aerial attack on the country” would mean to Pangborn Memorial Airport, which is co-owned by the ports of Chelan and Douglas counties.
He found then-airport manager Arnie Clark, who, with air service grounded, was focused on clearing the parking lot.
“Word was cars couldn’t park closer than 300 feet from the terminal. He was calling tow companies to get quotes on moving the cars,” Huffman said. “I told him to just call all of them and have them show up. We didn’t know how quickly it could happen.”
The cars were moved to an open parking lot near the old terminal.
“It was a couple days before air traffic was allowed to flow again, so we were ahead of the curve,” Huffman said. A shuttle moved people back and forth to their cars until a barrier was constructed in front of the terminal and new rules in place for passenger and baggage drop off.
It was just the beginning of airport security measures that have become part of the routine during the past two decades — security checks, walls, scans, a fence around the entire airport perimeter, badges for airport staff and general aviation tenants.
The days of simply being able to walk out onto the airport tarmac vanished.
“I don’t think anybody realized the extent to which we would be impacted,” Huffman said. “Nobody knew what kinds of security measures would be in place. It took at least a year to unfold. Then we had the shoe bomber after that. Each time we had some kind of event, the requirements changed. Screening equipment evolved quickly, too, over a short period of time. Air travelers saw that evolution happen at airports all across the country.”
Huffman and fellow Douglas Port Commissioner Alan Loebsack, who has served in the post since 1986, are the only two still serving commissioners who were in office in 2001.
Loebsack recalls the scramble in the aftermath of 9/11 “to find a way to keep the traveling public happy, but safe. Now everything we do starts off with security.”
It didn’t all go off without a hitch.
One of the most obvious changes inside the airport terminal was construction of a wall separating those who cleared security and were waiting to board their flight from others in the terminal.
“It was engineered so the HVAC system would still work,” he said, which required leaving a gap at the top to allow air flow. “It’s a really high ceiling, so it was way up there.”
The security flaw was noted eventually thanks to a sweatshirt and two teenagers.
“These two kids were in there and one had checked in, but forgot his sweatshirt. He told his brother who was still outside, so the brother tried to pitch it over the top. It didn’t make it over, but got hung up,” Loebsack said.
Security officers took note, sparking another design process to figure out how to close the gap and revamp the whole HVAC system.
One change led to another.
“It didn’t all come at one time,” Huffman said, “but we did it. Otherwise we wouldn’t have had a functioning airport.”
Some security measures were paid for with federal funds, but local dollars were used as well.
“I actually think we’ve spent maybe too much money on it,” Loebsack said. “But I think the system is pretty safe. It’s not that big of an inconvenience. People get to the airport and know the routine. It’s what you have to do.”
Huffman says some of the security requirements push the envelope.
“What I’ve observed is that, as Americans, we tend to overreact,” Huffman said. “That seems to be typical of the way we approach problems. The security problems we have, some folks think are too extreme, but maybe they’ve prevented another 9/11 from happening.”