Numbers suggest terrorists targeted flights
By Mike Fish
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- The numbers appear out-of-whack, thankfully. And so, a lingering question is why the passenger loads on the four planes hijacked in U.S. skies are being described by industry officials as "very, very low.''
Is it simply incredible fortune that more people weren't aboard the commercial airliners used as deadly missiles? Is it just another tidy piece of a large, well-executed terrorist act?
Is it further reflection of an already reeling U.S. economy?
Or, contrary to airline denials, did the hijackers purchase a large chunk of seats that went unused?
Many investigators suspect the terrorists at the very least shopped for flights with low passenger loads, making it easier for them -- presumably armed only with knives and box cutters -- to prevent passenger uprisings.
"You have to think it was by design, that they didn't want to go on a flight with the chance of the passengers working against them,'' said Dave Esser, head of the aeronautical science department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. "If you've got the threat of a bomb or a gun you can hold people at bay. These guys were strong-arming people with box cutters and knives.
"They wanted the numbers to be on their side.''
And they were, staggeringly so.
Three of the transcontinental flights departed for the West Coast with at least two-thirds of the seats empty. Only 37 of the 182 seats were occupied -- including four by hijackers, at least two in first class -- as United Airlines' Flight 93 left Newark for San Francisco.
The only flight that was even half full proved to be American Airlines' Flight 11, a wide-body Boeing 767 that left Boston bound for Los Angeles with 81 passengers.
Through July, airlines in the United States reported flights on average were 71 percent capacity this year.
All four of the hijacked flights had passenger loads significantly down in comparison with similar flights in June, the second quarter this year and last September -- according to statistics provided by the Department of Transportation.
A well-scripted plot
From all appearances, the selection of flights was just another part of a meticulously scripted scheme that was likely years in the planning.
-- The planes hijacked were Boeing 767s and 757s, which pilots train for in the same cockpit. If you can fly one, you can fly both -- unlike the airlines' smaller and more popular 737s. The 767s in question account for only 3 percent of the United Airlines fleet.
-- The planes were fully loaded with fuel, and crashed soon after takeoff on transcontinental flights bound for Los Angeles and San Francisco.
-- The two wide-body 767s, which have the largest fuel capacity (16,700 gallons) of those hijacked, were used to fly into the World Trade Center.
-- Most of the hijackers had assigned seats in first class, putting them close to the cockpit and distancing them from the bulk of passengers. The five hijackers aboard United Flight 175, the second to strike the twin towers, purchased one-way tickets totaling more than $14,000.
-- They acted on a Tuesday, normally one of the slowest air traffic days. And just after Labor Day, when summer travel eases considerably.
-- They boarded the flights in teams of five. The exception was the four aboard United Airlines Flight 93, which authorities believe crashed in a Pennsylvania field after passengers took on the hijackers.
Knowledge of flights easy to obtain
The hijackers had apparently finalized their plans at least three weeks before the attacks when they began purchasing tickets for the flights, according to an FBI document provided to German police. Some paid cash for their purchases. Others used their Visa cards. Some booked tickets on the Internet. Their knowledge of the passenger loads could have been the result of assistance from an insider within the airline or travel industry, if not simply tedious research by the hijackers themselves as to the days and departure times when passenger loads would be lowest.
Most airline Web sites post seating configurations of flights, revealing which seats have been purchased as well as those available.
On Tuesday, a week after the hijackings, the only flight still flying near its former departure time was the United Airlines flight from Boston to Los Angeles. A check on the airline's web site the night before found 62 seats reserved in coach, alone -- compared to the 51 passengers and five hijackers who left Boston the morning of September 11.
"They were very low loads, especially when we only had 37 passengers on the flight that went down near Pittsburgh,'' said Liz Meagher, a United Airlines spokesperson. "I'm sure we are looking at this as a blessing and I'm sure it is being investigated as well.''
Specifics about the number of no-shows for the flights, as well as the passenger load history of the flights, have been turned over to the FBI, Meagher said.
Flights were on low travel days
Industry sources said post-Labor Day isn't normally a strong time and air traffic is off this year, but passenger loads on the four flights are off about 20 percent from similar routes last September.
"They may have done some research,'' said John Hotard, an American Airlines spokesperson. "If it's an issue of being able to control a fewer number of passengers, they may have been astute enough to know that Tuesday and Wednesday are your lower load factor days.''
Hotard said the airline hasn't detected any unusual booking activity on its two flights, dismissing speculation that the hijackers bought a large number of unused tickets.
He confirmed that the hijackers aboard the American flights were seated in first class, adding American and United Airlines were likely targeted because they're the primary transcontinental carriers.
"You have to assume they choose 'trans-cons' because those things were full of fuel,'' Hotard said. "So you knew if successful you're going to get a bigger fireball than with either a smaller aircraft or a domestic flight of only an hour or two.
"As to why they choose those two airlines, American is certainly a big bull's-eye out there, if you want to strike America. They picked the world's two largest carriers and we're out there with American spread all over and the American eagle on the tail.''
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