Saturday, September 11, 2010

The passengers of Flight 11 embarked on the wrong plane: CONFIRMED

Memorial flag at Gate 32, Boston Logan Airport, Terminal B, American Airlines (Source:

When did the passengers of Flight 11 embark on the plane? After nine years, this seemingly easy question is still lacking an answer. The 9/11 Commission Report doesn't deliver one, instead it confronts us with surprising boarding data:
See TSA report, "Selectee Status of September 11th Hijackers," undated. For boarding and seating information, see AAL record, SABRE information on Flight 11, Sept. 11, 2001. These boarding times from the American system are approximate only; for flight 11 they indicated that some passengers boarded after the aircraft had pushed back from the gate. See AAL response to the Commission's February 3, 2004, requests, Mar. 15, 2004. (9/11 Commisson Report, note #9 of Chapter 1)
It is, of course, impossible that any passenger boarded Flight 11 after it had moved off the gate. The concise explanation of the Commission: the boarding times are "approximate only". This sounds like as if the actual boarding times were spaciously rounded up by American Airlines' SABRE system which records and processes the boarding data.

Example: Given that Flight 11 pushed back at 7:40*** (see appendix). Now the Commission claims: if a passenger passed the gate at 7:37 (before the push-back), the system logged his boarding time as 7:50 (or 8:00 or whatever time after the push-back). This sizeable time gap smells funny and shows that the Commission's explanation for the oddity is concise, but far from conclusive. And indeed it doesn't withstand a closer scrutiny.

The cited note indicates that the Commission sent a request to American Airlines on February 3, 2004, which was answered at March 15, 2004. In 2009, this response was released to the public.
American previously has provided the Commission with documents that indicate the approximate times that passengers boarded AA Flights 11 and 77 and the approximate check-in times at the main ticket counters at the respective airports. These documents are Kean Commission Bates numbers 004658-004675 (Flight 77) and 004483-004518 (Flight 11) and are from American's Electronic Gate Reader ("EGR") records. The EGR records do not provide the exact time of individual passenger check-in, the check-in location (ticket counter vs. departure gate), or the identification of the check-in agent.

The EGR system for a particular flight is manually initiated by the gate agent usually several hours prior to boarding. The initation of the EGR system is done at the discretion of the gate agent. At initiation, the system downloads information for the flight, such as the names of all passengers holding reservations, check in status, seat assignment (if pre-reserved), booking class, and destination city.

Following system initation, the EGR system "polls" the Sabre passenger reservation system for any updates to this data. Prior to the start of boarding, the updates occur at approximately 15-minute intervals and provide a "snapshot" of any changes in information since the last update. For this reason, the ticket counter check-in times from the EGR system reflect only "approximate" times. During actual boarding of the flights, the "polling" process occurs more frequently, at approximately 15-second intervals. The EGR records the time that a passenger's boarding pass goes through the EGR and, provides an accurate record of when the passenger boards the aircraft.
So the boarding times are recorded fairly accurate, with an uncertainty of +-15 seconds. In our example: if a passenger passed the gate at 7:37:48, the system might round up the time to 7:37:50 or 7:38:00, but certainly not a time after 7:40 (the push-back). While the system checks the passenger's reservation status every 15 minutes only, it doesn't create minute-long gaps between actual and recorded boarding time.

The 9/11 Commissioners ignore this difference. Why does their report insinuate that the inaccurate boarding times are inherent in the SABRE system if American Airlines declares in plain language that the system "provides an accurate record of when the passenger boards the aircraft"? Either the gentlemen did not read AA's answer (?), or didn't understand it (???), or they decided to cease further inquiries and try to get away with a half-baked explanation ("approximate only"). An internal working draft from May 2004 shows that likely the latter is the case:
At 7:31 a.m. Wail Al-Shehri and Waleed Al-Shehri boarded American Flight #11. At 7:39 a.m. Atta and al Omari embarked on the aircraft and al Suqami boarded at 7:40 a.m. (PLACEHOLDER: THESE TIMES, WHICH ARE PULLED FROM AA'S SABRE RESPONSE SYSTEM, NEED FURTHER VERIFICATION BECAUSE THAT REPORT HAS SOME OTHER PASSENGERS "BOARDING" AFTER THE FLIGHT HAD PUSHED BACK).
The doubtfullness and need for further inquiry expressed in this paper is not reflected in the Commission report at all which was released three months later. The (too) late boarding is confirmed by two passengers of Flight 11 (Albert Filipov and Richard Ross) as well as flight attendant Madeleine "Amy" Sweeney. They called their spouse from the airport to tell her/him that the flight was delayed. Furthermore, there are conflicting reports of the gate where Flight 11 started from. Apparently the passengers embarked on a plane at gate 26, not at gate 32 as claimed by the 9/11 Commission. More about this here:

*** This is not 100% correct; at 7:40, Flight 11's doors were closed. The actual push-back ocurred at 7:45, as documented by the radio transcript between Boston Tower and Flight 11. However, this inaccuracy doesn't matter for the subject.