“I don’t want to use my connections to get where I want to go. Granted I’m 41 years old, I still kind of want to do this on my own,” says Shanda Harris, a sports business major at Northern Kentucky University. Harris’ hard work and her supportive family have helped her get through many difficult challenges, and have helped mold her into who she is today. A student turned flight attendant and student again, she has a unique and fascinating story to tell.
Harris first moved to the greater Cincinnati area in 1997 and took a job as a flight attendant with ComAir, an airline that was headquartered out of the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport. “I thought by being a flight attendant that, not only would I be able to see the world, but I would also still be able to be home and see my family,” says Harris.
She was only 23 years old when she started at ComAir, “The plan was to fly until my daughter graduated college, then pursue something else,” Harris said. “That job was stability for her and for myself.” Little did she know, the next 15 years of her life would provide her some of the most memorable, unique, and even terrifying experiences of her life. The most notable of which was September 11, 2001. Harris was beginning a four-day trip, and the plan was for her to be in New York that Tuesday night. It was a normal morning flight from Cincinnati to Charlotte, when things got interesting. The flight she was on had around 30 passengers on board. Harris had just finished her beverage service when she received a call from the flight deck.
“There’s certain signals that they give you when they call, and you never hear the emergency signal. I turn, and I see the emergency button flashing,” Harris said. “So I pick up the phone and they say, “Shanda, we have to land immediately, terroristic threats,” and they hang up.” Prior to 9/11, Harris had only been trained to be aware of bombs. At that time, bomb threats were the most common threat to major airliners. Aside from that, the planes that Harris was on weren’t major airplanes and they didn’t go far. This meant that they were less likely to be a target for a hijacker. “Our biggest concern was getting struck by lightning or engine failure, not someone coming on and hijacking the plane,” said Harris.
On this particular day, the flight wasn’t full and Harris was working by herself. She stressed the importance of remaining calm in this situation: “I can’t panic or anything because that will cause everyone else to panic. I have to be calm during this,” Harris said. The passengers on the plane and Harris herself were not yet aware of the attacks on the World Trade Centers in New York. No one on the plane found out about the attacks until later.
Before long, the flight deck called Harris again. They said, “We need to land immediately. Our choice is Tri-Cities, Tennessee or a cornfield. If we don’t land immediately, we’re going to be shot out of the sky.” The pilot tells Harris to sit down and prepare for an emergency landing. In the background, Harris can hear the other pilot communicating rapidly with Air Traffic Control. The pilots were still unaware of why they needed to land, and now they were being told if they didn’t, they would be shot out of the sky. Harris now has to find a way to tell the passengers what’s happening. She goes on the P.A. system and tells the passengers that there’s a small mechanical issue that requires the plane to land, and be taken care of. “I had to think of something that’s not going to make everyone panic,” she said.
Luckily, the plane landed at an airport in Tri-Cities, Tennessee. Harris was given clearance to open the main door of the plane. Around this time, the ramp agent at the airport approached Harris and the pilots and told them everyone needs to get off the plane. “There’s been a hijacking and a plane has been run into the twin towers,” said the ramp agent. However, there were two men on the plane that Harris couldn’t let leave. “I notice that there are two guys that have military clothes on, like they had just completed training,” said Harris. “They need plain clothes, I don’t care what you give them, they need something. They are targets.” The men were held on the plane and their bags were retrieved, allowing them to change clothes before exiting the plane.
When Harris and the pilots were finally able to exit, they did so without any of their possessions. Everything on the planes had to be checked and searched. “We couldn’t even contact people, couldn’t contact loved ones, family members, anything,” Harris said. While the captain contacted ComAir, Harris snuck away to contact her mother. After letting her family know she was okay, the focus now shifted to what’s next. Buses began taking passengers at the airport to their destinations, as long as the destinations were south. Any passengers who had destinations north of Tennessee were stuck. It remained like this for four days before the skies were open again and they were allowed to leave Tri-Cities. The airport became so full, that it could no longer take in any planes, and they were now being diverted to other airports.
After four days of being stuck in Tri-Cities, the crew was finally given clearance to return to Cincinnati. Unexpectedly for Harris, the plane took on passengers. “I was expecting an empty flight, but no. We took on passengers. So here we are, flying back to Cincinnati, and I don’t trust any of them.” At the time, no one was to be trusted. The country was in panic mode and no one knew what was coming next. “It’s only been four days, anything can happen. That was my thought process,” Harris said. The following months and years for the flight crew were very difficult on Harris and flight attendants all across the country. The government set forth new security standards and it made things a lot tougher on them. Such as going through security, what they could or couldn’t bring on the plane, how they had to pack, being patted down in front of passengers, and much more.
Harris flew for 11 more years with ComAir, until the company closed down in 2012. Now, the 41 year-old Harris is a student at Northern Kentucky University and living in Burlington, Kentucky. Harris is majoring in Sports Business and wants to focus on player relations. She grew up in a family of athletes, and was recruited as a high school freshman to run track at UCLA, Miami, and Tennessee, among others. “The reason why I want to do player relations is because I have had many friends that have played professional sports, so I was around it all the time,” said Harris. “I’ve gotten to see how difficult it was for them to get acclimated to their surroundings.” Being around those friends, Harris has helped them get through it, along with helping herself learn about the process. She quickly found that for a lot of athletes that were young and new to living on their own, they didn’t know how to do the simple things, because it had always been done for them. Harris says it doesn’t matter where she is or who she’s working with, she wants to be able to help athletes at all levels. “I’m not all into the fame and all that stuff. I’ve been there and done that. I’m just concerned with the well being of the athlete. That’s my biggest concern.”