Left in the dark at Reagan National
By Tracy Fitzsimmons
My husband was in the bathroom when the lights went out last Monday, Jan. 4, at Reagan National Airport. Because the airport has so many large windows, he was one of the few travelers to notice immediately. I was making my way into the security line, and I realized that something was wrong when Transportation Security Administration personnel suddenly began to shut the doors to the screening area.
As a college president, I was immediately struck by what was not happening. Ever since the Virginia Tech massacre, campuses drill and drill about potential crises. We have all learned lessons from what our Tech colleagues did right and wrong.
For the next 75 minutes, I watched how airport authorities reacted — and did not react — to this potential crisis. What I learned is that our capital city’s airport needs to brush up on its emergency procedures.
First, it needs to be better prepared.
How is it possible that one of the country’s most essential airports has no backup electrical power? No way to power check-in equipment (and terrorism watch lists)? No way to move jetways, to operate security screenings, to unload baggage or even to flush the automatic toilets, which quickly filled?
All essential systems and services should have a backup. If this outage had lasted much longer, thousands of stranded travelers would have gotten awfully hungry with no ability to purchase food and terribly cold in an unheated building on one of the coldest days of the year.
Second, communicate, communicate, communicate.
At least 20 minutes passed before a general announcement was made on the outage. And it was longer than that before additional announcements informed new arrivals to the airport of what was occurring. In our line, one TSA official briefed the few people around her, but most travelers were beyond earshot. Passengers were left to brief other passengers or to vainly check hand-held devices for information.
The rule of thumb in an actual or potential crisis is to communicate with those affected immediately and then every 10 to 20 minutes thereafter, even if you have no new information to provide. Simply providing status updates and stating that you will provide more information when you have it is invaluable to ensuring a calm and cooperative environment — something that will be essential if you need people act swiftly to change location or vacate a structure. At National, more systematic and frequent announcements would have helped.
Finally, bring closure.
In this case, once power was restored about an hour after it went out, no one told us that there had been no indication of a security breach or that the airport would investigate the problem to ensure that it would not recur. In an era of heightened alert and given the attempted Christmas Day bombing in Detroit, authorities should have sought to reassure passengers about what they knew regarding the safety of travel. With no communication and closure, thousands were left to wonder and speculate.
My experience of National Airport’s emergency preparedness did not instill confidence. Maybe it’s time for airport officials to take a college refresher course.
The writer is president of Shenandoah University.
| January 11, 2010; 9:51 AM ET
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