Airport Evacuation: Lessons from a Passenger

08/17/2018 | By Janelle Penny

Operations at the Frankfurt Airport are back to normal after a screening mistake on Aug. 14 forced the evacuation of gates A and Z, but passengers’ memories of hours-long delays and updates that were few and far between won’t fade quite so quickly.

Don’t let this snafu happen to you.

Jay Watts, a high school teacher and athletic administrator who needed to catch a connecting flight from Frankfurt to Poland, found that his layover quickly became an unplanned overnight stay thanks to the extreme delays caused by the evacuation.

Part of the problem was the lack of communication and conflicting messages during several stages of the process, Watts noted, which caused panic among several travelers who believed they were missing their connecting flights.

You can’t always avoid an emergency, but you can be smart about how you manage it.

Review your emergency management and evacuation plans, especially the sections on communication and accounting for people’s immediate needs. Your evacuation can go much more smoothly than the one in Frankfurt if you can avoid making these mistakes.

Don’t rely on online or cellular communication in an emergency.

Passengers from the evacuated concourses were herded into the main lobby and ticketing area, where the wifi wasn’t strong enough to support the sudden huge demand. Communicating in multiple formats – for example, text, the PA system and perhaps written messages pushed out to airport signage – would have eliminated this problem.

“If you’re relying on the internet, you better hope it’s robust enough to support quadruple your expected traffic,” says Watts, who eventually managed to get a few texts out to his wife, who was at home in the U.S. and was able to figure out a Frankfurt hotel room on her husband’s behalf.

[Related: Building Evacuation Questions Answered]

Lufthansa, the largest German airline, later tweeted that around 4,000 hotel rooms had been reserved for the more than 7,000 affected passengers.

However, the spotty internet meant that most of the passengers didn’t see the tweet until the crisis was over, and those who did receive the message on time had no idea where or how to claim the hotel vouchers because that information was missing from the tweet. Meanwhile, there were no staff members left at the ticketing desks to hand out the vouchers in person.

Navigating Chaos: Travel Tips for When Your Airport Falters

Expert tips for when flights are delayed or cancelled from seasoned travelers.

Listen to these valuable travel tips provided by Christoph Trappe and Tyler Davidson (two seasoned world travelers) on how to get to your destination even with canceled flights, long lines and grumpy crowds.

“You’ve got to have something to get people the information. You cannot rely on cellphones when things go south,” Watts says.

Appoint one single source to give up-to-date information in multiple formats.

Put together an emergency communications team that will act as the sole source of information and updates, and involve local law enforcement with the team so that they’re on the same page as you are.

This will keep your building from running into the communications issues faced by Frankfurt travelers, who were seeing on airline apps that their flights were merely delayed (and in some cases, supposedly about to start boarding) when in fact the flights had been cancelled.

“I’ve worked in school settings, and at the school where I’ve worked previously, when we had active shooter drills there was always a central command set up. People were supposed to call into one room and then information went out from the people in that room, as far as ‘all clear’ or ‘stay locked’ or whatever the message might be,” Watts explains.

He continues, “In this case, instead of having one central resource or point of information, you had three different entities. You had an airport, an airline and a police force that in some cases were giving out three different contradictory orders for something that people were supposed to do. You want to trust the police, but you also have a $1,200 ticket on the line and the airline is telling you it’s been delayed and is about to start boarding.”

Anticipate possible guest challenges.

Like any other international airport, FRA’s administrators were well aware that thousands of passengers with a limited (or nonexistent) grasp of German would pass through every day. That’s why the PA announcements were provided in multiple languages, Watts notes. But during the evacuation, passengers realized that the PA hadn’t been used in quite some time and the police who were issuing orders were only communicating in German.

Exacerbating the language barrier, Lufthansa evacuated its airline personnel, so multilingual gate agents and others who could translate into at least one other language were no longer on site, Watts notes.

The evacuation’s impact on Watts and thousands of other travelers is a large-scale lesson. It’s important to create and practice comprehensive emergency procedures that account for likely pitfalls, such as the foreseeable language struggles and lack of a single authoritative information source that Watts cites about the Frankfurt incident.

[On topic: The Importance of Scheduling Emergency Drills]

Heed this insightful advice from Watts, someone who was thrust into a poorly planned crisis-management solution: Review your emergency and evacuation plans now. Find out what situations and solutions are missing and look at them from the eyes of the people who will be affected. If they’re lacking, there’s no time like today to update them.


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