ATW Editor's Blog

Hitting the panic button at US airports

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Two major US airports have seen substantial disruption and panicked crowds in August and in both incidents, it was a false alarm. Airports now have to be prepared not only for real threats, but also perceived dangers; and the latter kind may be harder to solve.

On Sunday evening, Los Angeles LAX was brought to a standstill after rumors spread through the terminals that there was a shooter at large. What triggered the alert is unclear and under investigation. A costumed man was seen being apprehended by a police officer; it turns out he was carrying a plastic sword. There were reports of a “loud noise” that may have come from people watching a sporting event on one of the terminal TVs. Whatever the cause, the result was pretty rapid and startling, and was potentially dangerous in itself. Passengers were screaming and running every which way, tripping over, jumping over each other, throwing bags. Most difficult to understand, and surely a top priority for the investigation, what that some passengers fled out on to the tarmac. That, of course, created a security breach and LAX issued a temporary ground stop, diverting or delaying some flights.

Earlier in August, New York JFK experienced a similar mass panic situation with no known cause. There does not appear to have been a security breach, but there was chaos.

Given recent events, most especially the terrorist attacks at airports in Turkey and Belgium as well as other attacks in France and Orlando, it is natural that people are on edge. They are especially on alert in certain places, including airports. In the US, the 15th anniversary of 9/11 is approaching.

Airports and enforcements agencies must focus first on mitigating the real threats. That is why, for instance, it was unacceptable that passengers at some US airports were waiting in huge lines earlier this year to get to security screening because of TSA staffing and training shortfalls. Crowds accumulated on the vulnerable, landside of terminals; the target area for the attacks at the Brussels and Istanbul airports.

Making airports “secure” on the “unsecure” side is a severe challenge, but one obvious solution is to ensure there are sufficient security checkpoints so passengers can move quickly through screening regardless of traffic peaks. Airports and agencies know in advance how many aircraft and, therefore, how many people they will have to deal with, hour by hour. There is no excuse for huge crowds (the same can be said for customs and immigration queues; airports and agencies know which planes are coming in every day).

But how do you deal with the bogeyman who’s not there? No one was injured in the JFK or LAX incidents, but they could have been. Flights were disrupted. And, in the LAX incident, security was breached. So lessons must be learned from these mass panics before they become dangerous and yet another reason for people to avoid flying.

Typically in these types of cases, the best answers lie in good training and better communications. LAX, it has to be said, seems like an airport on the verge of chaos even on a good day. There’s 24/7 traffic gridlock outside the terminals, with buses, taxis, personal vehicles and people crowded in a too-tight space with no flow system. The landside areas of most of the terminal buildings are similarly clogged, poorly sign-posted, with almost no one visible to whom you can direct questions or seek assistance. That’s bad enough when all you want is directions to the hotel shuttles or your airline check-in desk, but those are exactly the sorts of people who, in an emergency (real or perceived), could be part of a safe and orderly evacuation process.

Airlines are federally regulated to ensure their flight crews are trained to evacuate people safely in an emergency. With emergencies being thankfully extremely rare, those same crews – if they are good – can also go a long way towards calming nervous passengers with a smile and friendly service. Who doesn’t like hearing the captain welcoming everyone onboard and sounding relaxed and authoritative about the flight ahead?

Maybe US airports can learn some lessons from the airlines.

Karen Walker karen.walker@penton.com

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