Every November, families from across New Jersey descend on Orlando, Florida to visit Disney World. It’s an unofficial event titled “Jersey Week”, and it’s notorious for crowding the parks, public transport, and airports. On November 11th, 2017, a lithium ion battery in a suitcase exploded near a security checkpoint at Orlando International Airport, just as tourists flooded the airport to return home at the end of the annual vacation week.
A TSA agent was able to grab the compromised bag and remove it from the area, but the incident caused widespread panic. The explosion and sound of falling stanchions raised fears of a shooting, and the people in the terminal were instructed to evacuate with little information. According to NBC news, the incident also canceled 24 flights
The situation in Orlando demonstrates why the airline industry should invest in an alerting system as part of their emergency communication plan. In videos of the incident, security officer Ricardo Perez, a 20-year old former veteran grabbed the package and ran away from the lines of people. Nobody was hurt, but the incident immediately sparked outcry and fear, even among staff. The airport couldn't notify employees that the threat had passed, which in turn left customers without information.
In a statement issued to NBC News, Greater Orlando International Aviation Authority CEO Phil Brown described the reason for the chaos after the officer removed the smoking package. “Others hearing the luggage being dropped, stanchions falling, and rapid movement mistook the sounds as gunfire and within seconds a spontaneous evacuation of the main terminal occurred,” Brown wrote. Customers near the exploding battery were initially evacuated, but it took a long time for the situation to resolve and passengers were sequestered in the main terminal for hours waiting for the airport to resume operations.
Travelers were stranded without being told the nature of the emergency. The crowds in the airports main lobby included passengers who had already passed through security and boarded planes. People on grounded flights were only told there was an emergency situation, and were deplaned.
Esther Smith* reported that her plane was evacuated into a back hallway in the airport and passengers were told to run. The plane was full of families returning from the Disney theme park, and included very young children as well as elderly passengers.
“It's crazy. Nobody knows anything,” traveler Mckenzie Golden told WFNTV news while waiting to pass through security and return to her flight. The confusion meant that many found themselves was panicked and unable to act in an informed, coordinated manner. In the case of a true emergency, it's crucial for customers to understand proper evacuation and response procedures.
The lack of communication between law enforcement, airline management, and the airplane crew resulted in chaos in Orlando, and it could happen at any airline, even during a less-busy time of year for traveling. If employees aren't able to be told the nature of the emergency or where within the airport the threat occurred, there was no effective way to communicate safety procedures to passengers. This contributes to the panic, and can leave customers fearing for their safety, even if the threat is handled by law enforcement.
In Orlando, all travelers was required to pass through TSA once again, but in the meantime, thousands of people stood in the airport’s front terminal with no idea what had occurred. If there had been an emergency situation, the crowding in the airport terminal could have presented a serious safety and security threat, especially since there was no system in place to communicate quickly and effectively with airport staff and local law enforcement.
“We attempted various methods of communicating but as everyone is aware, a few trying to communicate a message to this large of a mass is a daunting task but efforts were continued throughout the event,” Brown wrote in his statement. “Communications is and will always be an issue in this type of a situation but please know that we will always try our best in communicating all available information to our customers and our staff.” He promised that there would be a complete review of the airport response following the incident, and that the airport’s communication strategies and emergency plan would be revised.
During the incident at the Orlando Airport, customers had to find information from the outside. The Orlando Police tweeted that there was no gun threat or shooting, and stranded passengers received updates from local news stations and by contacting friends or family outside of the situation. If the airline industry was better equipped with emergency alert technology, airplane crews and airport staff would be able to better manage the high-stakes emergency situations.
A mass notification system like Rave Alert would allow an airline to notify employees via text messages in the case of an emergency. The incident at the Orlando Airport shows how large crowds can present security challenges, but even during a period with normal travel traffic, effective communication is key. If there is a suspicious package or a battery explosion in the future, every employee can be instantly informed. Then, those evacuating planes or certain areas of the airport would be able to better instruct passengers and avoid putting anyone into danger.
There are a few other ways that an airline can leverage technology to improve internal security, and giving people the ability to report a suspicious package to the appropriate authorities can only help bolster public safety in airports. A text-to-tip service is another option for airlines looking to increase the options in their public safety plan. The customers would feel safer if allowed to take their security into own hands, and it could help preemptively address potential security risks.
It’s important for customers to feel safe and secure in an airport, especially as for many, traveling can be a high stress endeavor. When dealing with periods of high foot traffic, airlines should take extra security precautions. The unfortunate situation in the Orlando International Airport terminal during Jersey Week may not have been preventable, but a communication system could have increased response time and helped the spread of accurate information. Even when faced with the security challenges of a large crowd, having a line of communication open with staff can at least keep passengers notified. This way, customers don’t have to seek outside information in case of an emergency, and everyone can respond in a coordinated manner.