The first thing to say is that the suddenness of the attacks overwhelmed all concerned, both in the air and on the ground. The seizures of the planes took place between 15 and 45 minutes after take-off. The planes crashed between 20 and 45 minutes after seizure. The attackers were eager to get it done. The planes were seized over the course of about an hour and a quarter. People on the ground became aware that hijackings underway over the course of an hour and thirteen minutes. (Even before being informed of the fourth hijacking, FAA’s Command Center ordered a nationwide “ground stop.” That is, everyone was ordered to get their planes on the ground as soon as possible and no more flights were allowed to take off.) The planes crashed over the course of an hour and seventeen minutes. This prevented an effective response.
What would have constituted an “effective response”? Shooting down the first three planes before they hit their targets. Fomenting revolts by cell-phone on the first three planes on the grounds that “you’re all going to die anyway.”
The second thing to say is that there was some confusion on the ground. Thus, AA 11 hit the World Trade Center at 8:46 AM. At 9:16 was AA HQ aware that AA 11 had hit the WTC.
At 9:20, FAA HQ informed the Boston Air Traffic Control (ATC) Center that AA 11 was still airborne. At 9:21, Boston ATC Center informed North American Air Defense Sector (NEADS) that AA 11 was still airborne and headed for Washington. Thus, between 8:56 and 9:05, a radar glitch left Indianapolis ATC Center blind to real position of AA 77. Indianapolis ATC assumed that the plane had crashed. Meanwhile, by 9:05, AA HQ had become aware that AA 77 had been hijacked. Between 9:05 and 9:10, AA 77 reappeared on Indianapolis radar headed east. However, observers had stopped looking for it because it was believed to have crashed and they did not notice it. It flew east for another 36 minutes undetected. Thus, only at 9:34 did the FAA informally—almost accidentally–advise NEADS that AA 77 was missing. At 9:36 NEADS was informed that there is a fast-moving, unidentified aircraft in-bound toward Washington. At 9:37 AA 77 hit the Pentagon.
The American Air Traffic Control system is not a battlefield management system. It does something else.
The third thing to say is that the federal bureaucracy appears to promote people based on their ability to follow established procedures, with a bias toward not getting people riled up. In the case of AA 11, the first plane seized, between 8:25 and 8:32 the Boston ATC Center notified the chain of command above that a plane had been hijacked. At 8:32, the FAA Command Center, Herndon, VA, informed FAA HQ of the hijacking. However, FAA HQ did not inform National Military Command Center (NMCC) as protocol required. On the other hand, between 8:34 and 8:38, the Boston ATC Center by-passed the established protocol and directly contacted NEADS. By 8:38, Boston ATC notified NEADS of hijacking.
Between 8:38 and 8:46, NEADS obtained approval from the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) to scramble the fighters. At 8:46, NEADS ordered fighter jets from Otis AFB to “scramble” (get in the air ASAP). This was the same moment that AA 11 hit the WTC North Tower. By 8:53, the NEAD jets from Otis were airborne.
There is a certain resemblance between the Boston ATC people bypassing procedure to directly contact NEADS and the improvised manhunt for al Qaeda terrorists already in the United States conducted in Summer 2001 by junior officers at CIA and FBI. Never buck anything up the line because someone will say “No.”