Ready for Takeoff: How Airports Can Achieve Faster Incident Response

Nov. 1, 2018
Rapid communication is essential for airports to properly respond to a major incident.

Everything from cyber-attacks to adverse weather and active shooter situations can play havoc with airport operations. Threats to passenger safety and operations have the power to ground or cancel flights, hinder check-in processes and even shut down an airport.

During critical events, collaboration across the airport ecosystem — including airline employees, retail tenants, concessions staff, passengers and mutual aid partners — is vital. A lack of information sharing can cause confusion that exacerbates the situation and may put airport personnel and passengers in harm’s way.

When Critical Events Strike, Rapid Communication is Key

Unexpected, critical events create nightmares for even the most well-run airports. When these events occur, it’s vital that airport personnel are able to communicate clearly and effectively with first responders, management, all badged personnel, vendor employees and the traveling public with pre-approved communications, which can be executed instantaneously during times when it matters most. This means that when an incident has been identified, it’s crucial to reach out to the right people and provide them with the right information and collaboration tools so they can take the steps to investigate an IT issue, confront an active shooter or make preparations for irregular operations.

By leveraging streamlined communications processes that automate incident response, airport managers can help ensure an effective response, no matter what the crisis is. For example:

  • Severe Weather – Events such as hurricanes and winter storms can result in flight cancellations, diversions and increases in passenger volume from people trying to get out of town before they hit. In these instances, clearly communicating that the airport will be shutting down at a certain day and time — and that stakeholders should prepare for a short-term traffic spike — enables staff, vendors, cab stands and passengers to all participate as the airport works to ensure continued smooth operations.

For example, ahead of the landfall of Hurricane Irma, airports across Florida and the Atlantic Coast prepared to suspend operations as forecasters warned that the storm would be a hurricane of epic proportions. Airports including Key West International, St. Petersburg-Clearwater International and those in Orlando, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale all announced that they would suspend commercial flights during the storm. In addition to notifying the public about cancellations via official channels, airports across the state leveraged pre-configured statewide communications channels, which cautioned people against using the airports as hurricane shelters. In the days before the hurricane hit, Fort Lauderdale communicated that it was offering a shuttle service that would transport stranded travelers to a hurricane shelter at a nearby elementary school.

  • Active Shooter Incidents – During active shooter incidents at or even nearby an airport, airports may elect to suspend operations to ensure passenger safety and security. Airports will need to inform staff and passengers of possible delays and proactive communication has a major impact in the volume of passengers who may arrive at the airport to fly out, only to find that they are unable to do so. After the deadly mass shooting at the Mandalay Bay hotel, all planes were grounded at nearby McCarran International and flights were diverted to other airports during the police action around the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. Automated communications allow airports to quickly share important information about the situation and what people inside the airport need to do or where they need to go.

In addition, for active shooter situations that occur at the airport, like the shooting that occurred at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, airport managers can leverage communications systems to alert people at specific gates or areas where the shooting is occurring to seek shelter, as well as instruct people elsewhere in the airport to avoid the area. Pre-scripted messaging scenarios, which deliver full details to airport management while sending separate evacuation orders to those in impacted areas and shelter-in-place instructions to everyone else should leverage automation and business rules to ensure simultaneous delivery to various audiences, rather than a linear communications process to the different stakeholder groups, which can take considerable time to execute during a crisis.

  • Computer or Power Outages – Whether a glitch with an airline’s reservations systems or a cyber-attack on all airport servers, IT incidents can end up stranding tens of thousands of passengers in a matter of hours as hundreds of flights are cancelled or delayed. Without efficient, real-time communication between operations managers and affected parties, passengers and public-facing tenants may not know there even is an outage – much less how long it will impact them or whether the issue is with the particular airline they’re flying with or the entire airport.

Failure to rapidly and proactively communicate with the entire airport community often results in the reporting of inaccurate information via social media, which then translates to reports in mainstream media, damaging an airports brand and reputation. From an efficiency perspective, lack of proactive communication with all badge holders results in hundreds of helpdesk tickets being opened and calls to airport operations, causing an airport’s response team to waste limited resources responding to repeated questions rather than addressing the issue.

Automating and Accelerating Incident Response

As shown in the above examples, communication processes must be streamlined and automated to ensure the fastest and most efficient incident response. Automating notification procedures eliminates manual processes, such as those that identify the teams and individuals responsible for responding to a critical incident. It also allows for improved collaboration and communication between airport teams, as well as with businesses and passengers in the airport, making the overall resolution time shorter while keeping passengers informed every step of the way.

Here are several steps airports can take to streamline, automate and accelerate their communications process:

1. Have a communication plan in place

First, airports should identify all stakeholders (internal and external) that require communication during and after any incident. Typically, the very definition of what it means to “communicate with everyone” changes dramatically following a critical incident. For those who have experienced a catastrophic incident first hand, it is understood that communication during such events must include airport employees, all tenants, all flight crew currently at the airport or scheduled to fly that day, passengers, transportation providers (e.g. public transit, taxis, TNCs), and for mass casualty events, nearby trauma centers and mutual aid partners. The plan should address who will be responsible for sending communications and specify tools that will be used to communicate with each stakeholder group.

Crafting pre-written incident message templates, which are dynamically modified at the time of the incident based on incident type, location and other variables, dramatically reduces the time required to communicate and also reduces the human error often correlated with managing critical events. An example of what might be sent to airport staff during a power outage includes, “A <> has just occurred. We are investigating the situation to determine next steps. An update will follow in approximately 15 minutes.”

2. Know which teams are on-call and who is available

Going through spreadsheets, white boards and call trees is inefficient and time consuming when managing a major incident. Ensuring on-call schedules are centralized and perpetually up-to-date improves response and ensures that only required personnel are called to action. This careful targeting of responders helps to mitigate a major problem today among airport staff, known as alert fatigue. It also enables individuals with specific skillsets to be called and allows teams to be activated in accordance to sequential callout, mandated by union rules (e.g. snow event, baggage system failure, FIDS/BIDS outage, LEO overtime, CBP kiosk outage, etc.).

3. During an incident, use a multimodal communication approach to ensure messages are received regardless of the time of the day, time zone or device

Don’t simply rely on a pager system or phone calls – leverage a mobile app, push notifications, SMS and other communication paths. Having a process in place that allows for multi-modal messaging (SMS, cellphone, email, landline, push notification, etc.) is key to delivery success, as no single delivery path is ever 100 percent reliable. The more communication paths that are available, the more reliable communication will be and the more likely the right people, including any impacted staff and passengers, will receive important information and updates.

4. Use automation to collect recipient responses and eliminate manual calls

Automating escalation processes will allow the next on-call staff member to be automatically notified when there is no reply or response in a certain timeframe. To further expedite the process of finding the right person to handle the incident, allow recipients to easily confirm that they are able to take ownership of the incident by providing a one-click polling option. For an IT issue, options may include “Yes, I can work on the issue” vs. “No, I am unavailable at the moment.” A negative response, or lack of response, should trigger automated escalation to a broader team.

5. Use a single communication platform for both critical communications, as well as for daily, operational communication

Having a communication platform that can serve daily, operational use ensures that staff and stakeholders are comfortable using the tool and by providing information to stakeholders on a daily basis, an airport can encourage badge holders to keep contact data current in the communications platform (this is optimally an automated component of the SIDA process).

The best communication platforms will have the following features:

  • Anytime, anywhere access - The ability to access the system from any device or location allows for rapid communication and the ability to leverage the platform as a situational awareness tool from any location, not tied to a physical location/EOC.
  • Easy data management - Automatically synchronizing employee contact information from airport HR systems as well as IDMS ensures that the most up-to-date information is available and the correct stakeholders can be reached quickly in the event of an incident.
  • Communications integration - Integrating with airport technology systems — from baggage systems to FIDS and the website — facilitates complete automation and a layered communication approach that speeds response to operational disruptions that may impact the passenger experience.
  • Instant passenger updates - Allowing passengers and airport stakeholders to subscribe to notifications via keyword text or visit an opt-in portal that is easily integrated with the airport website increases customer satisfaction and reduces the number of complaints. For critical events, airports leverage the FEMA Wireless Emergency Alert program, often referred to as the Amber Alert program, to directly communicate with every phone in the airport vicinity.
  • Intelligent reporting – Chronological event logs, detailed reports and ad-hoc reporting provide the flexibility for quick, informed decision-making in real time.
  • Emergency notification in the cloud - Leveraging cloud computing lowers the cost, provides flexibility and creates a more secure computing environment without requiring locally-installed software, hardware or internal telephone networks to rely upon during a crisis.

Disruptive events – from severe storms to infrastructure failures – will continue to be a fact of airport life. While they will never be completely avoided, rapid communications powered by a reliable notification platform will empower airports to respond more effectively, keep stakeholders informed and leverage collaboration to ultimately resolve critical incidents faster.

Michael Cardarelli is the Director of the Everbridge Transportation Practice, serving 200+ airports, airlines and transportation clients globally to help them make better decisions and communicate more effectively during crises.