Friday, March 23, 2012

Home Front: Airports

Location Location Location: Airports

Having been in a few recently, I have given some time to thinking about airports and how they may be utilized in the event of disaster. I've been in a lot of airports around the world, and spent many hours sitting and wandering around them. I've always paid attention to the areas that passengers can go, emergency exits, emergency services and even the shops that line the through fairs. The design of airports is presumably a well documented topic, but one I am unschooled in. I'll instead discuss only my observations and suppositions, rather than points of confirmed data.

So, bearing that in mind, here are some things that I've observed. Large metropolitan airports are large, high maintenance entities. They have many service dependent features, not the least is the human element. Airports y their very nature are hubs of transport and have a heavy throughput of traveling people, as well as those picking up and dropping off. They also have a fairly significant service population; shop attendants, booking and checkin staff, customs and immigration staff, luggage staff, aircraft maintenance crews, air traffic control, cleaners, local police, emergency response crews and administration staff. Being what they are, airports also have rather unique requirements. Large expanses of flat, clear land for runways. Areas free from flooding, stable ground, with security fences sufficient to stop wildlife and deter trespassers are all aspects of airport requirements.

Much like hospitals, airports would require a certain amount of redundancy in their systems; radar and signaling being two major ones, and the electricity to run them. The movie Die Hard2 gives us a look at what kind of situation an airport without comm, radar and power could find itself in whilst trying to operate "as usual". Just in this last trip severe weather shut down one major airport and another regional one, although that was more due to high winds and poor visibility, although I did hear that the regional airport was losing power intermittently. In the event of widespread disaster, flights in or out of airports may be disrupted simply by the conditions on the ground, because whilst there are many technologies available to assist in landing under adverse conditions it may come to pass that landing or taking off may be too dangerous for the aircraft, pilots or passengers. Much like racetracks, runways need to be left clear of obstructions and have an unbroken surface.

Apart from the practicalities of the landing and taking off of aircraft, the terminal buildings themselves, and all adjoining and associated buildings, like "the tower", hangars, fuel depots and the like are all highly secured facilities due to the sensitive nature of air travel safety and security. Again, security fences, locked doors and an active security force ensure that the public don't have access to these areas.

Where am I going with all of this? Well, here goes. Airports are hubs of traffic, they may well constitute "a way out" or at the very least "the way home" in the event of a disaster. It seems likely that many people will try to get to them in order to do that, and anyone who has seen what people are like when a single flight is cancelled can imagine what an airport full of cancelled flights must look like. Multiply that by people who don't have bookings, are desperate and think how the very regulated air travel system would cope. Not well I expect. Airports are designed to facilitate the movement of people, but in an orderly and systematic fashion.

Would they be a good place to go in the event of a disaster? I don't think so, unless it's to escape widespread fires or other natural disasters where wide, flat, empty land is valuable. Maybe later on, after the initial wave of panic and chaos. As I've said, they have lots of resources, redundant infrastructure and are designed with security in mind.


  1. There was a partial evacuation from I think Gatwick (or maybe Heathrow) when I was heading to our gate to fly out. Got to see some of the behind-the-scenes staff-only fire-exits. Pretty cool.

  2. My main concern is that if the apocalypse strikes in the form of a disease, places like airports will become ground zero. The sheer bulk of people, the multitude of origins followed by hours in a tin can breathing air recycled from your neighbours lungs... and then once the initial outbreak is contained, who knows how many bodies you'll be faced with inside the airports from people scrambling to escape or trying to hide from the world.


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