False reports of gunfire at Los Angeles International Airport on Aug. 28 caused panic among travelers, led to the evacuation of the airport and resulted in more than 250 flight delays. A similar incident occurred two weeks earlier at Kennedy International Airport in New York. While there was no real active shooter in either case, the fear that fliers had during these episodes is very real.
Crime statistics show that over all, violence in the United States is as low as it has ever been, yet terrorist attacks at airports in Brussels and Istanbul and mass shootings in the United States have caused passengers to fear loud noises and commotion.
Here’s what you need to know about airport safety and what to do if you fear that an active shooter is at an airport.
What are the chances of an active shooting or a terrorist attack happening at an airport?
Very small, said Larry Studdiford, a security consultant for airports and the founder of Studdiford Technical Solutions, a security firm in Alexandria, Va. An estimated 3.5 billion people flew globally in 2015, according to the International Air Transport Association, a trade association for the world’s airlines, and comparatively, there were only a handful of incidences at airports. “The chances of a passenger being involved in a shooting or attack at an airport are minimal,” he said. “And, while fear of being at an airport is natural following any airport incident around the world, such as what happened in Istanbul recently, you are more at risk of getting into a car accident on the way to the airport than running into trouble at the airport.”
If there’s a crowd of people running around an airport and you don’t know what’s happened, what should you do?
Do not follow the crowds running around, said Mike Ackerman, an expert in travel security and the founder and chairman of the Fort Lauderdale-based security consulting firm Ackerman Group. Instead, try to find a safe harbor in a quiet place, such as a restroom, and move away from the commotion. “Airports, unlike hotels, don’t have evacuation points because they are supposed to be secure, so it’s not like you can easily get out,” he said. Your best bet is to find a way to stay safe within the airport.
If you are in an airport, and there is a potential shooter on-site, what should you do?
The minute you hear a loud noise or any commotion, move away from it — not toward it — Mr. Ackerman said. “There is a tendency for people to be curious when they hear a loud noise and go toward the trouble, but you want to do just the opposite,” he said.
How do you increase your chances of staying safe at an airport?
When you get to the airport and have checked in, get through security as quickly as possible, said Mr. Ackerman, because if an attack is going to happen, it will likely be in the area before fliers reach security. “Most attacks in airports, including the attacks in Brussels and Istanbul earlier this year, happen before security checkpoints because the bulk of armed personnel are at, and after you get through, security, and a shooter likely doesn’t want to deal with them,” he said.
In addition, Mr. Studdiford advised staying away from areas where people tend to congregate, such as ticket counters, self-service kiosks and baggage claim. “If an attack is going to happen at an airport, it’s likely going to be where there are crowds, so you’re better off staying away from these spots as much as possible,” he said. Check in for your flight before reaching the airport, and get through security faster by signing up for TSA Pre-Check; at baggage claim, he said, don’t wait at an idle belt — approach it to pick up your bag only when the belt starts moving.
Are some airports safer than others?
Not really, especially in the United States, said T.J. Schulz, the president of the trade association Airport Consultants Council and an aviation security expert. “Airports are of different sizes and have different layouts, and that doesn’t mean one is safer than another, but airports in the United States, in general, are safe,” he said. And, travelers should have some peace of mind knowing that all domestic airports have a team of security personnel; in addition, some have federal security officers, including armed T.S.A. officers, as well local police on-site.
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