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Transport Canada’s Immediate Response to the September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attacks on the United States: A Detailed Chronology of the First Four Days

Transport Canada played a lead role in protecting Canadians and supporting the international response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 on the United States. The following chronology provides an overview of Transport Canada’s initial response to the events of September 11.

September 11, 2001

(EST, all times approximate)

8:45: American Airlines Flight 11 strikes the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York. The plane is carrying 81 passengers and 11 crew members.

8:45: Transport Minister David Collenette speaks at Airports Council International

North American Conference and Exhibition in Montreal. Airport CEOs and managers from around the world are present.

9:03: United Airlines Flight 175 strikes the south tower of the World Trade Center. There are 56 passengers and 9 crew members aboard.

With all signs now pointing to an act of terrorism, Transport Canada officials realize that there are bound to be important implications for Canada and the department will be expected to play a lead role in any response.

9:05: During his speech, Minister Collenette learns of the terrorist attacks from then Associate Deputy Minister Louis Ranger.

9:21: Transport Canada activates its Situation Centre (SitCen) in Ottawa. 

The SitCen instantly becomes a nerve centre and focal point for all decisions and actions taken by Transport Canada and its partners as they respond to the crisis. The state-of-the-art facility was designed to provide an emergency response to a potential massive earthquake on the west coast. Since opening in 1994, it has been activated a number of times, including during the ice storm in Ontario and Quebec and the Swissair disaster near Peggy’s Cove.

The SitCen quickly fills up with key Transport Canada personnel. In addition, several other critical organizations assign staff to the SitCen to lend support. These include NAV CANADA, National Defence, RCMP, CSIS, Citizenship and Immigration and Canada Customs and Revenue Agency.

The SitCen establishes contact with other key members of the Canadian aviation community, including the Air Transport Association of Canada and local airport authorities. It also establishes links with American regulators - notably, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) - and international civil aviation authorities.

Across Canada, regional Transport Canada SitCens activate their emergency response measures.

9:37: American Airlines Flight 77 crashes into the Pentagon. The plane, with 58 passengers and 6 crew members on board, had just taken off from Washington’s Dulles International Airport en route to Los Angeles.

9:45: The FAA orders all aircraft to land at nearest airport and closes American airspace to incoming international flights.

The FAA order poses enormous logistical implications for Canadian decision makers. Approximately 500 trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific flights are in the air bound for destinations that are now closed to them. They enter Canadian airspace at a rate of one to two planes every minute. Transport Canada must swiftly decide what to do with these planes.

Transport Canada also begins work on the formal order to halt all departures.

9:45: Canadian airports begin accepting diverted traffic.

Transport Canada instructs NAV CANADA to order all flights with enough fuel to head back to Europe. Two-hundred and seventy planes turn around in mid-air. The remainder are diverted to airports across Canada. The first planes land at Goose Bay. Others follow at 16 other airports from coast to coast. Transport Canada establishes and maintains continuous contact with every affected Canadian airport and reports back regularly to Minister Collenette and the Deputy Minister, Margaret Bloodworth.

In the ensuing hours, 224 passenger flights carrying more than 33,000 passengers as well as 10 cargo flights are stacked up on airport runways from one end of the country to another. This marks the beginning of Transport Canada’s “Operation Yellow Ribbon”.

10:00: Transport Minister David Collenette orders a halt to all departures from Canadian airports until further notice, except for military, police and humanitarian flights.

No Canadian government had ever had to take such drastic action - the shutdown of the country’s entire airspace. Transport Canada maintains close contact with U.S. and international authorities. Extra police are deployed to Canada’s busiest airports.

Minister Collenette issues another order instructing all Canadian domestic flights to remain clear of American airspace.

10:24: Less than one hour after the third crash, United Airlines Flight 93 slams into a farm field in southern Pennsylvania. It is en route from Newark, New Jersey to San Francisco with 38 passengers and 7 crew members.

11:00: Minister Collenette releases a statement publicly announcing that all air movements from Canadian airports are grounded until further notice, except for military, police and humanitarian flights. 

11:45: Minister Collenette arrives at Transport Canada headquarters in Ottawa from Montreal.

From the afternoon of September 11 and into the early hours of September 12, thousands of passengers aboard the diverted flights are screened again, cargo is taken off all aircraft and re-searched. Additional Customs and Immigration employees are brought in to clear all passengers at airports across the country.

The security of the aviation sector is not the only concern of the Government of Canada, as all transportation infrastructure in both Canada and the U.S. needs to be protected. In addition to the air passengers and crew, there are 1,211 ferry passengers, 675 rail passengers, and 330 bus passengers that are screened at Canada/U.S. border crossings on September 11th and 12th.

17:30: Minister Collenette talks to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta.

The Minister expresses regret over the tragedy and assures Secretary Mineta of the continued support of the Government of Canada.

Contact is maintained between Transport Canada, the FAA, and other international authorities. 

19:00: Minister Collenette releases a second statement providing the status of Canadian airspace and the number of diverted flights across the country. In addition, tbe Minister thanks the communities and airports receiving diverted passengers for their co-operation and support.

Operation Yellow Ribbon


Number of Diverted Aircraft








St. John’s
















Goose Bay










Thunder Bay


   Total:                          224

(These numbers represent updated figures and do not coincide with the initial figures publicly released by Transport Canada on September 11, 2001.)

September 12, 2001

The grounded aircraft and their passengers present a significant logistical challenge for emergency personnel, NAV CANADA, airports, and the communities that have taken in these unexpected guests.

The stranded passengers need the basics - lodging, food, and transportation. In addition, there are unforeseen challenges. For example, humanitarian flights have to be authorized on a case-by-case basis, including one carrying Canadian children to the U.S. for cancer treatment.

Transport Canada officials begin the arduous task of drafting and revising hundreds of security requirements in the early hours of September 12th so that aircraft could safely return to the skies.

The Transport Canada Internet site, with links to news releases, FAQs, and diverted flight information, receives over 47,000 visits on this day alone.

12:25: Minister Collenette issues news release informing Canadians that Transport Canada officials are working with their U.S. counterparts and other Canadian agencies to assess security and safety requirements. Flight restrictions placed on Canadian air travel are still in effect.

14:25: Minister Collenette clears all diverted domestic flights to resume travel and issues a second news release on this development.

The Minister introduces tighter security measures including:
  • increased police presence at major airports;
  • increased passenger screening; and
  • enhanced security procedures, including more hand searches of baggage.

Departmental officials notify airports and air carriers about the new safeguards.

With tighter security procedures in place, all Canadian domestic flights that had been diverted are cleared to take off from airports where they were grounded. This occurs prior to opening Canadian airspace to regularly scheduled Canadian passenger flights. U.S. airspace remains closed.

17:29: Minister Collenette allows all non-American international flights that had been diverted to Canada to begin departing to points other than the U.S.

Flight restrictions in Canada are gradually eased.

18:00: Minister Collenette authorizes operation of most domestic passenger flights.

Despite the easing of air traffic restrictions, the Transport Minister urges Canadian travellers to show patience and to expect delays at major Canadian airports due to heightened security measures.

20:00: Minister Collenette authorizes U.S.-bound passenger flights diverted to Canada to begin flying.

September 13, 2001

8:00: U.S. authorities advise that the nation-wide closure of U.S. airspace is to be lifted at 11:00 a.m.

11:00: Minister Collenette lifts remaining restrictions on domestic passenger air travel in Canada. Restrictions on cargo remain in effect

16:40: Minister Collenette authorizes the operation of international flights, except to U.S. destinations, from Canada under enhanced security requirements.

Minister Collenette warns Canadian travellers that it could take considerable time for flight schedules to get back to normal, particularly in the U.S.

18:30: Minister Collenette authorizes operation of passenger flights to the U.S. under enhanced security requirements.

September 14, 2001

9:21: Transport Canada’s SitCen has now been up and running for 72 hours.

18:00: Minister Collenette authorizes passenger flights to move cargo or mail, except to or from the U.S., under enhanced security requirements.

Lifting restrictions on domestic cargo and mail allows the Canadian business community to fully resume its operations.

19:00: Minister Collenette revises security restrictions on cargo and mail.

Cargo and mail are allowed aboard passenger flights to the U.S.

20:00: Minister Collenette authorizes cargo/mail only flights, except to the U.S., under enhanced security requirements.

21:47: Minister Collenette removes all-cargo flight restrictions to and from U.S. destinations.

This announcement by Minister Collenette allows the remaining aircraft to depart for U.S. destinations. This marks the complete end of flight restrictions imposed over Canadian airspace on September 11, 2001.


The departure of the last diverted flight on September 17 does not spell the end of the crisis for the men and women in the SitCen. The emergency response team drafts, processes and implements new security measures to ensure that Canada’s skies remain safe. Around the clock operations continue in the SitCen for 21 days, after which the SitCen goes back into a monitoring mode and the officials return to a more “normalized” state of operations.

In the two weeks following September 11, Transport Canada processes 10 sets of new security regulations at a rate of about six hours per regulation.

Throughout the crisis, the SitCen finds itself inundated by an avalanche of phone calls. At its peak, the facility fielded an estimated 5,000 calls a day. The calls come from airports, air carriers, the media and the general public. There is also constant contact between the SitCen and other federal departments and agencies, provincial governments and U.S. aviation authorities.     

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