To the public, the airport attack in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., earlier this month may have seemed unthinkable. No one had ever before stored a pistol in their checked luggage and unloaded it at the end of their flight. As the gunfire erupted that day, panicked travellers scrambled onto the airport’s tarmac; five were killed and seven injured. However, for the airlines involved that day, the incident was far from unthinkable, and instead fit into a category of emergencies for which they had prepared.
Ryan Carter was formerly responsible for strategic and tactical planning at Emirates Airlines, up until 2015.* In his job, he says, “all we did basically was think about various situations that could occur.” Each of the 32 passenger airlines that use the Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood airport has some version of an incident command centre, which anticipates and responds to disruptions. From imagining a terrorist attack to a bomb threat aboard a flight that only runs once per week, incident command centres presuppose the world’s most disturbing “what ifs.”
“There is some imagination that goes into it,” says Carter, who is currently a professor of aviation operations and safety at Seneca College in Toronto. When leading a team of 10 at the Emirates incident command centre (working inside the airline’s flight operations centre in Dubai), he considered, for example, what the airline would do if someone equipped a drone with an improvised explosive device and flew it into a terminal. “Is that possible? Absolutely,” says Carter.
In the alphabet of disruptions used by Emirates, when Carter worked with the airline, a “Category C” involved a ground or airborne incident such as a hub closure, IT failure or other situation causing injuries and sometimes death.* Air Canada prepares for such situations by holding live exercises at its flight operations centre in Brampton, Ont., according to spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick. He says the centre has teams, sometimes of more than 100 people, “who can respond to virtually any type of situation that might arise.”
Broken airplane wheels, miscarriages on board, drunks with pressure headaches—operation centres anticipate passengers’ most poignant fears and the world’s worst logistical nightmares. John Ventresca, who worked at the flight operations centre with Skyservice Air Charter Flights in Toronto, was on duty when airport staff realized one of the airline’s planes had lost one of its two nose wheels during takeoff. Ventresca’s team contacted the pilots in the air and learned the plane could still land safely, but they had already prepared a plan for an emergency landing, including details about contacting the families of passengers in case of deaths.
To respond to a Category C incident, during Carter’s time at Emirates, the airline would “activate GO team.” The duty manager at the flight operations centre would deploy an extra 15 to 20 people to travel to the airport where the incident occurred, or, if the incident were airborne, to the airport receiving the plane. The manager used a system called Cris Call to send pre-written and recorded messages by phone, text message and email to a pre-created list of employees, and he or she ordered personal calls to the airline’s executives.
A “major,” or Category B incident, in the Emirates categorization, involved a non-fatal hijacking, bomb threat or missing flight, initiating a similar response but more stress. “Would you want to be the one who has to call the CEO at 2 o’clock in the morning?” asks Savik Ramkay, a professor of aviation and operations safety at Seneca College.* For this category, pilots or operators would report the incident with “mayday.” The category could include disruptions to a flight operations centre itself, which have back-up generators. “Every airline that flies in the sky has a flight operations centre,” says Ramkay. “The Achilles Heel of every airline is that hub.”
Category A, at Emirates, was reserved for scenarios with a severity level deemed “catastrophic.” Carter says the volcanic eruption in Iceland qualified for this category, cancelling more than 100,000 flights with an eight-day ash cloud, as did the Air Canada crash in Halifax last year, which caused no deaths but was nevertheless a plane crash and captured media attention.
Reputation is a top priority for airlines. On the fifth day of the ash cloud, Emirates decided to offer ground transportation in Spain, assigning flight numbers to buses and driving people between Milan and Nice. “The appetite of the customers was, ‘we have to get there,’ so we’ll do anything possible,” says Carter. In the case of a bomb threat shortly before takeoff, the plane would be quarantined away from the terminal, and the airline would accomodate families and friends of passengers by setting up a “meeting and greeting centre” in the airport, with updates on when their loved ones will be released (and refreshments).
When passengers have medical emergencies, airlines usually swallow up to $1 million that it can cost to divert the flight to a nearby airport, even for medical tourists who know they’re at risk before boarding. This courtesy prevents legal battles, but Carter says Emirates has tried to prevent these disturbances by better training check-in staff to judge whether passengers are fit to fly.
Fourteen hours after the Fort Lauderdale shooter was arrested, airlines resumed flights to and from the airport. They protected their brands by waiving change fees for affected passengers and letting people choose replacement flights that should have been more expensive (although if flying with Air Canada, customers still had to pay the difference). They rescheduled pilots and crews and settled lost luggage while continuing operations at hundreds of other airports. As Carter says, “you have to keep your business flying.”
*Clarification: The categorization system was only used at a single airline until 2015 and was not necessarily applicable when responding to the Fort Lauderdale attack.
*Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Ryan Carter formerly worked with Emirates Airlines, Kales Airlines and CargoJet, and that Savik Ramkay formerly worked with Air Canada in flight operations. Carter formerly worked with Emirates Airlines and Skyservice Airlines, while Ramkay formerly worked with Air Canada in maintenance.