Volume 18 Issue 2, 2003

Helping the other victims1 of September 11: Gander uses multiple EOCs to deal with 38 diverted flights

T. Joseph Scanlon

Peer-reviewed Article

Archived Article


On September 11, 2001, after seeing three hijacked jets turned into missiles and a fourth crash in Pennsylvania, the United States ordered all U.S.- registered aircraft to land at the nearest airport and closed its airspace. When the decision was made, hundreds of commercial flights were over the Pacific or Atlantic en route to North America. Some had sufficient fuel to turn back. Most needed a North American airport to take them, and that airport had to be in Canada. The Canadian government, its air traffic control system, and Canadian airports were presented with a fait accompli. They had to accept hundreds of aircraft knowing – given what had happened – that one or more of them might be carrying terrorists or be under terrorist control. Worried about the possibility that some of these jets might attack major Canadian cities, the federal government ordered that they land at smaller communities along Canada’s East Coast. On the East Coast, two factors affected precisely where those jets landed – the jet stream and the weather. The jet stream was far south that day, so most flights made their North American landfall at Newfoundland rather than Labrador. That took them to St. John’s, Gander, or Stephenville, Newfoundland, rather than Goose Bay, Labrador. Then a light drizzle and fog hit Newfoundland’s West Coast, dropping visibility to a mile at Stephenville. Aircraft heading there had to pull up and land in St. John’s or Gander or continue to Halifax, Nova Scotia, or Moncton, New Brunswick. On Canada’s West Coast, there was little choice: if the planes were going to land in Canada, for the most part they would have to land in Vancouver. As a result of all this, two Canadian cities – Halifax and Vancouver – received the most diverted flights on September 11. But when Gander’s population – 10,347 – is considered, its intake was proportionally far greater. Gander took in 38 flights and 6,600 passengers, a 63 per cent increase in its population, compared to a two per cent increase in Halifax, less than a third of a one per cent increase for Vancouver. Even including nearby towns – Appleton, Gambo, Glenwood, Lewisporte, and Norris Arm – the Gander area’s population is 18,882. That is still a 35 per cent increase.2 This article is about how Gander handled that situation. As will be shown, the community activated a number of emergency operations centres (EOCs) – and each ended up managing one aspect of the response. Though the airport was the key, the result was a coordinated system that ran smoothly without any single agency taking charge. This article describes how that system came about, why it worked, and how Gander avoided problems that often occur with multiple EOCs and emergent groups.