Lessons Learned from Airport Crises

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By Tom Smith
Over two days in Albuquerque during the 2014 ACI-NA Media Relations Seminar, airport communicators came away with a toolbox of tips on handling a crisis at the airport. Vivid presentations by San Francisco International Airport concerning the Asiana crash and Los Angeles International Airport’s active shoot incident set the stage for a presentation a veteran public relations practitioner at FleishmanHillard.

Both incidents demonstrated the power and reach of Twitter, LAX reached more than 262 million in the days immediately following the Nov. 1 shooting it the airport’s Terminal 3 that claimed the life of a TSA agent, said Mary Grady, the managing director of media and public affairs.

Twitter was an essential tool to reach a global audience of travelers preparing to fly to LAX, she said.

In San Francisco’s case, the first tweet was sent was sent by a Google executive in the terminal less than 1 minute after the plane came to a stop. The first surviving passengers sent a tweeted a photo within 15 minutes.

While every airport has drilled for a plane crash, training may not include a shooting.

“You will never be completely ready for an active shooter,” Grady said. “The most important things is that we have so much to learn We need to have better tools if it ever happens again,” she added.

The shooting incident challenged every emergency plan and, every communication plan. “A lot that did not go right, but a lot that did go right,” Grady said.

The shooting was a combination of two incidents – the original crime and the subsequent closing of the airport. “And, not amount of table top exercises will prepare you for this,” she added.

In the debriefs following the incident, the airport received a number of recommendations both for the communications and operations teams.

To improve crisis communications, the recommendations include:

  • Adding live twitter feeds to the airport’s website.
  • The airport’s website is being revamped to improve its reliability when stressed by extraordinary demands. And a “dark” website is being developed.
  • Subscribing to a wireless emergency alert system, which is a geo-based system that will send a text message to every phone in a designated area. The system will allow the airport to reach every phone with an emergency message.

In addition, LAX is developing a program with use administrative employees, who are not first responders, to provide assistance to the stranded passengers. More than 115 have already volunteered for the training.

In his presentation of the Asian crash on July 6, Doug Yakel, SFO’s public information officer, outlined six “take aways” for the communications team.

  • Incorporate social media into Emergency Procedures
  • Improvements to the website that crashed and remained down for 12 hours
  • Identify suitable facilities for media, family reunification
  • Establish clear lines with agency partners
  • Anticipate multiple phases of coverage; evaluate and plan for each
  • Incorporate public information into exercises, drills

Ed Stewart, a senior vice president at FleishmanHillard who had served as a spokesman for Southwest Airlines during the Midway crash, at Delta at the time of the “underwear bomber” and a stint at American, outlined the process an airport should use to create a crisis communication plan. He concluded that the airport’s strategy should be

  • Tell the truth
  • Work from a plan, but be flexible
  • Assemble accurate information quickly
  • Command involvement from top management
  • Centralize communications
  • Gain control of media communications
  • Remember all of your audiences
  • Communicate across all mediums
  • Use key learnings to mitigate for future situations

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