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Five Years On: 9/11 Memorial Speech

Delivered on 9/11/06 at Five Year Memorial Service, held at El Segundo High School
by John C. Nikides, LAX Chairperson for the APFA

When I stood before you five years ago, in the immediate shadow of 9/11, I spoke of our fallen colleagues and of our pain.  I spoke of the enormity of our loss and of being overwhelmed by what we saw, felt, heard and feared.  But, I also spoke of heroes, courage and perseverance.

We left Dockweiler Beach that night,  with a renewed spirit; with hope for the future; and with comfort in the knowledge that we had each other, the extended airline family.  We vowed to fight this battle, and to soldier on, in the name of what is right and what is just and to commemorate our fallen colleagues, the very first soldiers in the war on terrorism.

But, were any of  us really sure of what would be required of us? And of what awaited us? In our quietest moments, and in the recesses of our minds, how many of us asked ourselves, "What just happened to our world? What does the future hold? Can I handle it? Will our world ever return to normal? Is there such a thing as ‘normal’ anymore?" And, of course, the burning question, "What is going to happen to me, to my job, to my family, to my way of life and to my company?"

For those of us who returned to the air soon after the skies reopened, we returned to a world that had devolved to a figurative infancy. The efforts to return our companies to the skies was a grindingly slow, laborious one. It was a scary new world, with new threats, new fears, and new obstacles. The ease and the comfortable routine that characterized our jobs as late as September 10th, was gone. And, so was the joy.

I have a confession to make: During my first flight after 9/11, mere days after 19 individuals brought down our beautiful world with nothing more than box cutters and an avowed hatred for our way of life, I broke down sobbing in the First Class galley after the service was completed.  My tears were not based in fear, for I come from a pretty tough background and neither tears, nor fear, come easily to me.  My tears came from a profound sadness, from anger and from frustration.  Sadness at our lost innocence.  Angry that our wonderful world was wrenched away from us so very violently and so very suddenly.  And frustration that we never saw it coming.

In the ensuing months, life settled into an uneasy routine. We put aside our own fears, and our own concerns, so that life could somewhat normalize, if not to what we enjoyed prior to 9/11, at least, to a new semblance of ‘normal.’ Meanwhile, threats seemed to be around every corner and it appeared, our now-fragile world could come to a grinding halt again at any time. Can any of us say that we did not hold our breath, just for a moment, whenever a TV program  was interrupted with "Breaking News? Is this it? Is it happening again?" We would ask ourselves, if only silently, if only subconsciously.

But, for the first time in our careers, the world seemed to pay attention to us, and to the contributions we, as airline employees, made to the safety of the skies. They seemed to respect our efforts, and seemed to appreciate the fact that we put aside our own fears to ensure that air commerce within the United States continued unabated.  The ‘War on Terrorism’ made us partners; with the public, with the government, and with each other.

I am so very proud of all of you, regardless the  uniform you wear. You put on a brave face, despite your own fears. When your heart was breaking, you did not run away from the battle. Your hearts may have been broken, but your spirit never was. You soldiered on, and this nation should NEVER be allowed to forget that.

The ‘War on Terrorism’  was something we were forced to face on a daily basis. Our contributions, however, gave us comfort in that we were doing "something." It made us feel that we played an integral role in  shaping, and ensuring, the future of our nation.  We rebuilt, and by our example, brought the passengers back.  We derived our strength from the knowledge that it was, truly, a fight of good against evil.  A battle between life and death.  

But we soon found that we were fighting another war. A war with an enemy far more dangerous, with effects far more insidious, than we ever anticipated.  And that was the "War on Complacency."

How quickly they all forgot…the passengers; our companies; even the government.  And they wanted us to forget, as well. They seemed to only want us to remember when it was "convenient, cost neutral, or politically beneficial." We will not go quietly into the night. We will not, and cannot, forget.

When a passenger is non-compliant, and asks you why, remember that YOU carry the legacy. YOU are a soldier in the ‘War on Complacency.’   

And when your company, or when the government, seems to have forgotten the lessons we all SHOULD have learned after 9/11, remind them that YOU are carrying the legacy of those who have already given  their lives. You are, indeed,  a proud soldier in the ‘War on Complacency.’

Security is not, and should never be, up for debate. The safety of our skies should NEVER be negotiable. The job falls to YOU. YOU have inherited a legacy, and it is up to YOU to remind them when THEY forget.

Our world has changed, perhaps forever.  When I spoke to you five years ago, we were mere innocents, embarking on a journey for which we did not volunteer.  Five years later, we stand here, battle-hardened by our constant vigilance, and battered by events over which we have had little control, furloughs, bankruptcies, pay cuts, loss of pensions and the overnight reversal of 50 years of collective bargaining progress. It all seems so unfair. Terms such as Chapter 11, PBGC, COBRA and contract abrogation have entered the daily airline lexicon. We have, indeed, come full circle, once again asking ourselves, "What just happened to our world? Can we handle what the future brings? What is going to happen to me? What does the future hold?” I do not know. My wish for you, however, and my wish for all of  us, is a future of renewed hope and clear vision.  Despite the best efforts of those who wish to do us harm, and despite the efforts of those who wish us to forget, we are still here, standing in testimony to all that has happened.

We will NOT forget, and we will not let THEM forget. Ever.

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