The JFK Airport False Alarm Was Chaotic, Inevitable and Will Happen Again

Last week and this weekend was not good at JFK International Airport in New York. First, Delta Airlines’s computer outages caused massive cancellations and delays not only at JFK but worldwide. Then, people lost their shit, literally and figuratively, when people thought they heard gunshots at Terminal 8. That caused stampedes, lockdowns and mass chaos. They were no gunshots, no active shooters and no terrorists.

I have a running joke where I say “EVERYBODY PANIC!!!” during certain dumb situations. Whole Foods is out of kale. EVERYBODY PANIC!!! Netflix is dropping Saturday Night Fever from streaming. EVERYBODY PANIC!!! In this case, everyone did panic and now the reports are coming in how bad it got. Two stampedes ran towards each other like the big battle from Game of Thrones. People ran onto the tarmac, which I’m sure is completely safe with the planes landing at all that jet fuel in the air. Then, people hopped the fence to get out of the airport.

Here are the must-read articles:

  • NY Times: From False Alarm to Panic: Inside Kennedy Airport’s Chaotic Night
  • New York Magazine: Scenes From the Terrifying, Already Forgotten JFK Airport Shooting That Wasn’t
  • SOFREP News: Active Shooter panic. Navy SEAL at JFK, and lessons learned on personal travel safety.

Here are my talking point from this situation:

Don’t Fly In August
I can say it over and over to my friends and family, but they’ll do it anyway. August is the heaviest travel time due to families wanting to go on vacation before kids return to school. Work tends to slow down in August because people go on vacation, thus people will venture out as well. They want to get in vacation time before Labor Day, because we equate summers with vacations. All this creates crowds at airports. Nothing will ruin your relaxation than crowds — crowds running and screaming.

I can never understand why people head from one warm climate to another in summer. In Europe, August can be unbearable, especially in Italy and Spain. Air conditioning isn’t widely available.

In An Emergency Situation, Leave Your Luggage Behind

As I mentioned last week about the Dubai flight that landed in flames and people were grabbing their carry-on in the overhead locker, taking your stuff with you in a stampede will make things worse. The Navy SEAL saw people running with their bags. As he and I point out, anything in your carry-on can be replaced. Your life can’t.

Despite Recent Events, Terrorist Acts Are Rare

NY Times’ Upshot shows stats that, yes, more people have died in terrorism acts this year then last year in the West. The whole world, it’s gone down. You’re more likely to die in the cab ride home then you are from a shooter at the airport. We can state that over and over, but that doesn’t comfort travelers. That leads into the next talking point…

Fear Caused an Unavoidable Chain Reaction

The Associated Press reports that clapping from Usain Bolt’s Olympic victory might have been the cause. It just takes one person to mistake a handclap, a box falling off a shelf or a metal line divider falling over for a gun shot.

It’s easy to say, “Hey, before you start screaming ‘FIRE!’ or ‘GUN!’, make sure you see a fire and a gun.” We’ve built a lot of social anxiety when we read the news, follow social media and are constantly told to “See Something, Say Something.”

After reading the reports, I wouldn’t know what I would do. The joke I would make to myself, “If something happens, hopefully I’ll be in the airport lounge with a cocktail.”

To put the JFK panic in context, here’s something that happened shortly after 9/11. A few weeks after the tragedy, e-mails were spreading that some big terrorist act was going down in New York City that weekend. The e-mails were like “my brother’s friend knows somebody in the NYPD and he swears that they are on high alert and know something will happen.” People freaked out that weekend, which is understandable.

Nothing happened. Point being, this happened before, and it will happen again. There’s nothing we can do to stop it, but….

GOOD NEWS: The NYPD Is the Greatest Anti-Terrorism Task Force in the World
Don’t believe me, watch this 60 Minutes piece from 2011, which details the sophisticated lengths that the NYPD has done to protect the city, it’s citizens and visitors. 35,000 officers and 15,000 civilian employees have state of the art equipment, training and intelligence. “Commissioner Ray Kelly has built something else that most New Yorkers never see. It is nearly impossible now to walk a block in lower Manhattan without being on television. There are 2,000 cameras, and soon there will be 3,000 – all of which feed into this control center housed in a secret location.”

BAD NEWS: The Port Authority Runs JFK Airport
What I gleaned from the reporting was how disorganized everything became, even after it was declared a false alarm. TSA agents had no clue, airport employees knew nothing and airline staff didn’t know what to do. From that NY Times piece from an eyewitness: “I understand situations like this are inherently chaotic, but the lack of communication and guidance just compounded an already tumultuous and traumatic experience. At least in our terminal, they should have had enough time to get a coordinated plan together. But they didn’t, and that caused a lot of unnecessary panic and heartache.”

I can start a whole other blog writing about the Port Authority of NY/NJ, who run the three major airports, the world’s shittiest bus station, the seventh-level of hell that is Penn Station, the bridges, the tunnels and the World Trade Center site and Freedom Tower. Mis-management is their specialty.

For great reporting on the PA, check out Scott Raab’s stories about the building of the Freedom Tower on Esquire. What you’ll take from it is that the Port Authority is a fucking mess. It has their own police force that monitors the bridges, tunnels and transportation hubs like JFK. I’ll leave you with this scary nugget from Esquire:

… it’s not easy to digest the fact that the PAPD force, now ramping up to 2000 officers, is larger than that of many large U.S. cities. For the most part — and for many years — their primary responsibility has been as guardians of the PA’s airports, trains, and bus terminal, which is what led the Republican mayoral candidate for New York City to call them ‘mall cops’ during last year’s campaign — harsh truth.

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