Movie United 93 Term Paper

Excerpt from Term Paper :

United 93 directed by Paul Greengrass [...] problems with communication documented in the film, and how those problems need to change to keep the country safe. United 93 tells the story of ordinary citizens who find themselves on one of the planes involved in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington D.C. As they attempt to fight back, the film documents efforts on the ground to thwart the attack, and the problems in communication that were keeping the various government agencies from an effective pursuit of the highjackers.

The film switches between FAA flight controllers in New York, Boston, and Virginia, and it is a graphic illustration of the problems in communication between government agencies, and how those problems waste valuable time. The flight controller in Boston believes he has a highjacking on his hands, but his supervisors do not think it is likely, and do not take him seriously, the first piece of communication that goes awry in the film. A reviewer notes, "The idea of a hijacking seems so dated, so last century, that no one at the FAA can fully accept the reality of the situation until CNN broadcasts one of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center" (Muralidhar, 2006). At first, the FAA is not even aware a plane has crashed into the World Trade Center, it is CNN who reports it, and the New York flight controllers see it on the news before they look out their window and see the tower in flames. They literally watch as the second plane screams into New York and crashes into the second tower. All the while, the FAA Command Center in Herndon, Virginia, is attempting to contact FAA Headquarters for the permission to scramble jet fighters, but they cannot contact anyone there, even when they know they have a third plane turning from its course and heading toward Washington, D.C.

Unbelievably, it took another plane hitting the Pentagon in Washington D.C. For the FAA to ground every plane and stop all incoming planes. The communications breakdown was difficult to watch, and it pointed out so many different problems with the communications systems and how agencies share information that it was difficult to watch and to comprehend. Knowing that these agencies are still operating in essentially the same manner and without improving technologies is even harder to comprehend.

The film clearly indicates the government was unprepared, and that is understandable, because it was something that no one imagined or could possibly dream about or admit could happen. Yet, there was a general breakdown in communication throughout the film, from the flight controllers who continually had to use protocols and go up the chain of command, to the people on board the planes attempting to communicate what was going on. The FAA controllers literally lost the planes from their radar, indicating out outdated and outmoded the flight control technology is, and how that has not changed since the terrorist attacks. The controllers literally had to rely on eyewitness accounts when they lost the planes on their screens, and that is no way to deal with an event of this magnitude.

It is extremely frustrating to watch this film because it vividly points out the communications problems on the ground and in the air, and it shows that the country was simply not prepared for any kind of terrorist attack, especially from the air. The reviewer continues, "United 93 effectively captures the ensuing chaos and, more than anything else, the lack of vital communication between the FAA, the airlines, the military, and the White House that could have possibly produced a quicker response than what transpired" (Muralidhar, 2006). It was chaos on the ground, and another aspect of that chaos took place on the plane itself. The cabin crew had no training on what to do in case of a highjacking, and when it occurred, there was no policy for the crew to call the FAA or the military directly. One crewmember called United first, and ended up talking with maintenance personnel, who had to relay the news through their corporation to the FAA, and that took far too much time.

National Public Radio offers a timeline of events that occurred on the flight, which is even more shocking. At 9:29 AM, a flight controller in Cleveland hears what appear to be screams coming from the cockpit of flight 93. He asks other controllers if they heard them, and they say they did. At 9:32, he hears a terrorist tell the passengers there is a bomb on board, but he does not report it, he asks the pilot to repeat the message. At 9:34, Cleveland reports the bomb incident to the Herndon Command Center, who notifies FAA Headquarters. The headquarters now knew two planes had crashed, and instructed the Command Center to contact control centers for more suspect aircraft. The NPR article notes, "For the next 30 minutes, a Command Center manager updated executives at FAA headquarters on the progress of United 93. During this time, the plane reversed course over Ohio and headed toward Washington, D.C." (Editors, 2009). The Cleveland controller continued to watch the plane, and contacted the Command Center regarding launching military aircraft to intercept the plane. He even offered to contact a local military base. The editors continue, "Command Center replied that FAA personnel well above them in the chain of command had to make that decision and were working the issue" (Editors, 2009). Even more startling, it took even more time for them to actually order a scramble. The Editors continue, "Thirteen minutes after getting the question from Cleveland Center about military help, Command Center suggested that someone at headquarters should decide whether to request military assistance" (Editors, 2009). The plane crashed at 10:01 AM in Shankesville, Pennsylvania, but defense aircraft were not launched until 10:10 from Langley Field in Virginia, and they "did not have permission to shoot over Washington" (Editors, 2009). The military fighters did not find out until 10:15 that the plane had crashed, and they could not track in on their radar, either. The FAA Headquarters never asked for military assistance regarding the flight, either (Editors, 2009).

The government responded poorly, as well. Another writer notes, "Even when their government was paralyzed - "Do we have any communication with the President at all? How long can that take?" The controllers ask each other" ("Exploitative, voyeuristic - or," 2006, p. 30). The President needed to give permission to scramble the fighter jets, but communication could not be established with him, and so the military did not scramble until it was too late to intercept either of the remaining two jets that had been hijacked.

This film clearly illustrates the problems with communication and government agencies sharing information. There is no central way for agencies to share critical information, and the reaction here shows just how dangerous that is. No one could make a decision about calling in the military, and it just kept being shifted around. No one was willing to stand up and be a real leader at the FAA until the situation had gotten far too out of hand. Another reviewer notes, "As much as Greengrass shows us the heroism that day - in the air and on the ground in the air traffic control complex - there is an underlying sting about lack of leadership" ("Ewan's a Hit with," 2006, p. 46). The lack of leadership at every level of the FAA showed in the time it took them to poll other controllers, ask for help locating deviant planes, and finally order every plane on the ground. There were problems with communication on board the planes, too. First, the pilots are supposed to "squawk" an emergency frequency if they have an emergency in the cabin, but clearly, if the pilots are incapacitated, they cannot do that, and the controllers lost precious time because the captains did not reply on the emergency frequency. Now, of course, the cockpit doors are locked and secure (one good thing to come out of this tragedy). However, there should have been some kind of button or pedal or something that could be used to communicate immediately if there is a danger on a flight, or some kind of emergency transponder they could hit at the first sign of trouble.

In the same area, the cabin crew did not have a way to communicate with the ground in the case of emergency, they literally had to call United Airlines and talk to a maintenance worker to be able to communicate at all. There should be some kind of emergency procedure and communications directly to the military or at least the FAA in case of an air emergency, and the cabin crew should be trained in what to do in case of any emergency like this. It is not just a problem with United, it is a problem with the entire communications system, and how Americans tend to…

Sources Used in Document:


Editors. (2009). Timeline for United Airlines flight 93. Retrieved 12 May 2009 from the National Public Radio Web site:

Ewan's an ait with Woody. (2006, May 5). The Daily Mail, p. 46.

Exploitative, voyeuristic - or brutally honest? (2006, May 11). The Evening Standard, p. 30.

Johnstone, R.W. (2007, Wntr). Not safe enough: Fixing transportation security. Issues in Science and Technology, 23, 51+.

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