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Delta Air Lines CEO shares what happened behind the scenes when the first plane hit the World Trade Center tower

Leo Mullin looks back on the grounding of the Delta fleet; representing all airlines in seeking federal funds, and forced staff cuts to stay aloft.

ATLANTA — 9/11 and its aftermath struck a devastating blow to the nation's airlines.

Leading Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines through 9/11 and into recovery was Delta's Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Leo Mullin. Now 20 years later, in a rare television interview with 11Alive's Bill Liss, Mullin looks back on what those days and weeks were like, starting on that most painful day of Sept. 11, 2001. 

9/11 was a catastrophic day that required swift and decisive actions from the nation's airlines.

"As the second plane hit, we went into 'oh my Lord situation'", Mullin said. 

He added, "Obviously we were most concerned that it might be a Delta plane on the first instance and we ascertained within about 90 minutes that it was not, but it took us that long and it was immediately recognizable that we had a colossal crisis, and I spent the next 16 hours in our operations center dealing with questions and imponderables."

We asked Mullin how long it took before Delta had all of its planes–  especially the ones flying over the oceans brought down into a safe haven.

"The ones in the United States probably were down within 4 to 6 hours," he said. "But there was a lot of difficulty with respect to the ones coming in from overseas and the ones coming in from Europe, as the Delta planes and United and American, and a few others all were sent to Gander, Newfoundland."

But once Delta had its entire fleet on the ground with its crews and passengers accounted for, the carrier joined with 11 other United States airlines in dealing with serious financial shortfalls, as all commercial aircraft were parked on the ground. Mullin said that although Delta had monetary reserves in the bank, the airlines as a whole needed an immediate financial bailout to stay in business and get back into the air.

"A number of airlines could not have made it without Washington's help," Mullin emphasized.

Meeting in Washington, the 11 airline CEO's determined quickly that the one person they needed to represent the industry, not only in just articulating the issues, but going before Congress and articulating the issue and asking for financial help was Delta's Leo Mullin. He accepted the challenge on behalf of the airline industry to seek a bailout of $24 billion.

"It was quite shocking and as I look back on it," Mullin said.

"It was easily the most tumultuous week in Washington and in going through this, the most tumultuous time in my 55-year business career," he added.

With little time to prepare, Mullin went before Congress scaling down the request to $15 billion.

"I've never ever been so challenged to write something like this 15-page document and submit it to Congress with a request for $15 billion. It worked," he added.

"To this day, I even marvel at it myself," Mullin added.

But then Mullin faced a decision he called the most painful in his career.

He had to cut his Delta workforce by 16%.

"It was the worst day in many respects that I had at Delta to have to do that. I hated it. But the story was clear. We did it in a benign way but we had to do it as we were in desperate financial straights," Mullin said.

For Mullin, 9/11 and its aftermath will forever be remembered as the most vivid and challenging time in his career.

He said his extraordinary respect for his Delta team during those chaotic days was unlike anything he had ever experienced or will ever experience again.

Also, while Mullin was leading his airline through 9/11, his wife was on board a Delta flight in its final approach to LaGuardia Airport in New York as the tragedy at the World Trade Center unfolded.

Her flight was immediately diverted to Allentown, Pennsylvania where she joined three other Delta employees. In a rented car, they drove 18 hours back to Atlanta.  

But Mullin said it was six hours before he knew where she was.