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Prepared for an Airport Disaster?

Feb 14, 2013



We are all familiar with the images flashed across network television, Facebook and the Internet showing the devastations to hit seemingly random nations of the globe.  From earthquakes in Turkey and South America, to Tsunamis and Cyclones in Japan, at times, ours is a fierce and raging planet. Many may remember the video of Sendai airport awash in a sea of sludge, aircraft strewn about while passengers and employees alike, struggle to secure themselves on terminal rooftops while awaiting rescue.

Despite the best efforts of planners and airport administrators, natural disasters have proven nearly impossible to predict.  Worse yet, many preparedness plans fail to account for events which either seem implausible or impossible in light of their current environment.

The infrequency of such natural disasters as earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and the like all too often put these types of crises far from the mind of the more "practical" airport administrator.  Often dismissed as having only ‘a one in a million' chance of occurring, these pragmatists prefer to deal with the more common, if not the more mundane incidents of fuels spills, structural fires, inflight emergencies and the like.

Yet for many, the proximity of their respective airports to geologic fault zones, coastal areas, nuclear power plants or other industrial -chemical operations dictates that special consideration be given to these ‘one in a million' disaster scenarios.  Occurrences such as Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island, the Chilean and Japanese earthquakes, Indian Ocean Tsunamis and Bhopal type disasters1 illustrate the need for a somewhat broader vision when it comes to airport emergency planning.

Scope of Preparedness

Though detailed in nature, ICAO Document 9137 AN898 Part 7 addresses the issues of Readiness, Response and Recovery resulting from incidents and accidents related to airport routine operations. Today's Critical Response Planners must go further.  Not only should we examine the routine and the expected, but take a broader - Systems Approach - and look to the local, national and international ramifications of any possible natural or man-made disaster.

As an Emergency Planner for airport in Springfield, Illinois you may hear: ‘An earthquake in Illinois?  Not likely you say?'  As any US Geological Service (USGS) Hazard Map clearly shows, the danger of a large seismic disturbance with its epicenter in the area just south of St. Louis, Missouri is inevitable at some point in time. The ramifications of a major earthquake in this region for airports from St. Louis's Lambert International to Chicago's O'Hare and beyond are vast in number and highly complex.   As recently experienced by the events at Sendai, air traffic can quickly back up.  Cancelled flights for airlines servicing multi-national hubs to and from the affected area can create immediate and massive back-ups, cancellations and terminal chaos simultaneously around the globe within hours.

Though not often realized, the United States is, as are many nations, at risk for both earthquakes and volcanoes.  As the memory of the Mt. St. Helen's eruption fades, and with it, apparently the need to include ash clouds, service disruption and airport damage due to a nearby eruption, scientists are increasing their vigilance at such sites as Wyoming's Yellowstone National park3, Cascadia and several Eastern US geological fault lines in anticipation of long overdue seismic activity.  Many commercial airports, both large and small stand at risk to be impacted by even a minor eruption from any one of the dozen or so currently active volcanoes dotting the American West.

Earthquakes and volcanoes notwithstanding, airport emergency planners must also take into account the ramifications of an "industrial accident/incident" occurring at nearby chemical, manufacturing, refining or production facilities.  The 1984 Union Carbide accidental leak of some 42 tons of methyl -isocyanate into the atmosphere killed an estimated 3,787 residents, injured 558, 125 and resulted in some 3,900 permanently disabled2.

Should such an accident occur near Atlanta's  Hartsfield, Chicago's O'Hare or Miami's  International Airport, would contingency plans be adequate, or even exist to deal with the situation?  How would the airport respond?  What measures of readiness are in place to protect passengers, employees and aircraft resources?  "Could this happen at my airport?"

Proper Plan Review, Tabletops and More

When looking beyond the obvious, where does one being?  First, examine in detail the existing Airport Emergency Plan, servicing Airline Contingency Plans along with all Municipal response documents and accompanying Agreements.  Compare the existing contingencies with possible - as well as probable- threats to airport operations and resources.  Some of the questions a savvy planner might ask are:

  1. Are there any chemical, manufacturing, refining or nuclear facilities within the hazard zone?
  2. What are the seismic hazard factors for the airport and surrounding areas?
  3. Are there dormant or active volcanoes within the area of concern?
  4. What are the airlines interline connections, hubs and servicing points - what is the probability of  a significant disruption at any of these locations and how (in detail) would such a situation affect my airport?
  5. What are the resources both on airport and off airport available in the event of an incident or accident within any of the areas of concern? (Hospitals, transportation hubs, potential morgues and heavy equipment suppliers)


Second, as we all know, it is not simply enough to have a seemingly solid plan on paper.  Exercises - both full scale scenario and tabletop can quickly highlight problems of communication, coordination and execution not otherwise obvious in the ‘paper version' of a response plan.  New scenarios should be devised to incorporate uncommon threats as well as routine airport/airline incidents and accidents.

Practiced In accordance with ICAO, Airport Services Manual, Part 7, Chapter 13, and Section 13.2.2:

These (airport emergency exercise) tests shall be conducted on the following schedule:

Full scale - at least once every two years

Partial - at least once each year that a full scale exercise is not held or to maintain proficiency,

Tabletop - at least once each six months, except during that six month period where a full scale exercise is held.4

Planners and response managers can easily adapt existing templates and checklists, including Appendix 2 and 9 of the Airport Services Manual to reflect any additional "threat" incidents which may have been discovered and subsequently added to the existing Airport Emergency Plan.


The role of the Security Committee, Social Media and the Internet

The task of evaluating threats and developing new and innovative response plans can seem daunting at first even for the most seasoned airport emergency planner.  Exhausted from countless hours of reading, validating and creating new plans based on ICAO and National standards, the last thing one wants to hear is that there is yet ‘more to do' in order to have a ‘valid and complete' Airport Emergency Program.

Yet, one need not face the task alone.  An excellent source of assistance is a well-developed, well-organized and active Airport Security Committee.  Drawing on the resources and members of the Committee, planners can ascertain from municipal members - such as fire chiefs, police and law enforcement along with utility providers, hospital staff and civil engineers a plethora of information on existing industries, local response plans and national support agencies.  Once compiled and properly analyzed, this information can save overworked staff many hours of tedious research.

Another excellent source of assistance in the development of comprehensive emergency response plans is today's social media.  Blackberries, iPods, IPhones and more, offer access to today's professional keeping them in touch with friends and colleagues around the globe 24/7.   Airports with similar situations - say nearby nuclear power facilities or chemical production plants can quickly be queried as to the form, format and content of their individual response plans, with results appearing as a downloadable file, text screen message or e-mail, in literally seconds.  Then, with some minor adaptation to local conditions, planners can develop extensive response procedures sharable with all members of the local Airport Security Committee and Municipal Responder Community in like manner.

Throughout this process, one cannot overlook the value of the Internet in conducting research.  Today's Internet can avail airport planners, regardless of geographic location, a wealth of local, national and global information with simply the click of a button.  Search engines such as Yahoo, Google and Bing open doors to both government and private websites containing detailed information, data, maps and videos of relevance to the Airport Emergency Planning process.  Even the most novice of planners can acquire, in a very short time, the data needed to construct viable airport response actions for a wide variety of both probable and possible emergency scenarios.



The world we live in can be a scary place, with earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, industrial accidents and a host of routine and not so routine aircraft emergencies.  Planning viable contingency responses to each possible, as well as probable, scenario is no longer an option for any airport operator. In light of recent events, it is evident that Japan is among the best prepared societies in dealing with catastrophic emergencies. The lessons to be learned in this situation may be that preparedness, even after such a major catastrophe, speeds up the recovery process. One cannot plan for every eventuality, however, the breadth and depth of preparedness can make the difference between saving lives and utter devastation. As bad as things are in Japan, they could have been made worse if plans and contingencies had not been in place.




  4. ICAO, Airport Services Manual, Part 7, Chapter 13, Section 13.2.2, pp. 41



  1. Seismic Hazard Maps for the US:
  2. Location and information on US Nuclear Power Plants:


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