On Sept. 10, 2001, I was a United Airlines flight attendant, working a night flight from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco. My co-workers and I drank coffee and watched the stars pass by our windows, remarking that we relished a quiet night after the busy summer travel season.

We had no idea that in reality we were working in an environment of unparalleled danger. A mere 10 hours later, two of our morning flights would be hijacked, killing dozens of our colleagues and unleashing a profound national tragedy.

That evening we had no inkling of the direct threat that had been made to our safety, yet the president did, and we should have.

In addition to being a flight attendant that evening, I was a leader of the Association of Flight Attendants, the world’s largest flight attendant union. My No. 1 responsibility as a union leader was to help guarantee that our members had a safe place to work. I am furious that I was never given the information the White House possessed for 36 days before Sept. 11.

Standard industry practice dictates that all flight crews are briefed on security threats relevant to airline operations. In this case, no warning was issued. In an Aug. 6, 2001, memo, President Bush was informed that Al Qaeda was preparing for commercial aircraft hijackings inside the United States. Even if no one knew the exact date on which these attacks would occur, or that the aircraft would be used as missiles and flown into buildings, there are a wealth of responses aviation safety professionals would have been able to implement to defend ourselves.

Yet we were kept in the dark.

I would never argue that the contents of the Aug. 6 briefing would have guaranteed us the ability to prevent the attacks. But we could have used the information to quickly improve an ineffective aviation security system, a fix that would have made Sept. 11 much more difficult to carry out.

On the morning of Sept. 11, before the hijackers boarded their flights, they underwent security screening by some of the poorest paid employees at major airports. Depending on seniority, security screeners made less money than their counterparts at nearby Starbucks and McDonald’s. Pathetic pay and benefits lead to more than 100 percent turnover at most major airports on an annual basis. The policy of the airlines and the federal government allowed cost control to trump safety in our pre-Sept. 11 airport security program. This was the case while the president and his staff knew that Al Qaeda was developing a plan to hijack commercial airliners as part of an attack on the United States.

Thankfully we have dramatically improved our aviation security system. Significant improvements in training, staffing levels and pay and benefits have allowed airport security to become a career for serious law-enforcement professionals. Sadly this change came after nearly 3,000 passengers, flight attendants, pilots and workers were killed.

If the White House had communicated the information about Al Qaeda’s intended attacks, we could have immediately begun to ratchet up our airport and onboard defense programs. But instead we went to work in those first days of September ready for the cool breezes and quiet airports of autumn, unaware of the dreadful information that never left the White House.

–Ryan Murphy (excerpted from an article originally published by The Chicago Tribune; reprinted by permission of the author).