Communication in a crisis situation
How a digital platform can provide consistency, speed, and crowd control.
Most Airports have state of the art protocols to handle a crisis situation but in terms of digital communication there is room for improvement. In a situation like the Corona crisis, everybody is looking at the airport’s digital channels for information. Usually the crisis team has no defined mechanism and finds ad-hoc solutions to communicate. In worse cases, people learn details and see photos through Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter before airports issue official statements—often well before reliable facts and information are available. In this paper, we give a blueprint for more direct communication to all channels. Both consistent and segmented, so that the right message gets to the right audience in a time when information is critical.
The usual way of crisis communication
In most of the airport crises information has been either absent or too late, and usually both: too little, too late. Passengers, friends, family, and the media are looking online for official information. But most of the time, they can only find posts on social media which results in a scattered picture of the actual situation.
In November 2010 a Qantas Airbus A380 departing Singapore Changi Airport for Sydney experienced an engine fire and uncontained failure four minutes after take-off, which seriously damaged the wing, fuselage and critical systems. The aircraft landed safely back at Changi Airport 90 minutes later, but by then, Reuters and multiple other news agencies had already reported the A380 had crashed. These reports were based on photos and commentary which flashed across social media. This is a good example where the speed of information was not sufficient to eliminate misunderstanding. People need solid information from the official channels as quickly as possible when something like this happens.
The main reason for the slow turnaround and the lack of information during crisis situations is that there are many different digital channels for communication: PA announcements, website, mobile app, flight information displays (FIDS), email, and social media. Each of them is controlled by another department and another system which results in inconsistent and slow communication.
Besides that all digital channels for communication are siloed and controlled by several departments, the airport’s systems are often unable to handle the sudden heavy traffic, which results in a shutdown; everyone is going to the website for the latest information.
Another example in ‘old fashioned’ crisis communication is that everybody gets the same message. If there is an active shooter in one of the terminals, what message should all the people get do who are on their way to the airport? And the people who are in another terminal? And what should the message be in the affected terminal? A single identical message to everybody (“Get out of the building”) will only lead to more confusion and panic.
A digitally transformed way of crisis communication
The solution is simple, create a (digital) system with protocols that can be rolled out instantly over a multitude of touchpoints. Most digitally transformed airports have a single platform (their digital foundation) that controls all the touchpoints of the Airport (a Digital Airport Platform). As a passenger, you should hear the message (PA), see the message (FIDS), and feel it (buzzing notification on your phone). When the airport has a solid digital data foundation, there is a single platform to orchestrate the full passenger journey, and therefore all the personalised information that is communicated over multiple channels. This platform should be easy to use by many people in the organisation, so there is no single point of failure in case the communication manager is on leave. In this system, there are template crisis messages that can be activated by the team. Also, the team can send segmented messages to people who are in a specific location like a terminal, or not at the airport yet. Or to people who are flying to a specific destination.
Crowd control can be crucial to evacuate a building effectively. When there is no information, everybody runs in the same direction. This causes a single exit to clog while other exits remain unused. With controlled messaging and predefined dynamic wayfinding, crowds can be effectively controlled to the most optimal exits.
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Schiphol uses a special announcement on their app and on their website to inform passengers about the situation.
When one of the airports we work for had a power outage, there was no option to announce anything on the PA system or Flight Information Displays. However, the mobile app and the website were cloud based, and still up and running. We saw a spike in usage, because this was the only channel for passengers to get reliable (flight) information.
During the devastating events of Hurricane Irma, our client Orlando Airport used the mobile app and website to effectively communicate with their passengers about the status of their flight. We saw a spike in app downloads (450%) and user engagement (>900%).
One of our clients had an exploding battery in their terminal and passengers panicked because they thought there was an active shooter in the building. People got out of the building on the landing strip. On the airside, there is no PA system or passenger displays. However, a push notification to the mobile app could have been useful to inform the crowd.
Active shooter at FLL
On January 6th in 2017 a mass shooting occurred at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Five people were killed while six others were injured in the shooting. Part of the panic occurred following “unfounded reports of additional gunshots”; the false alarm touched off a brief panic in other terminals. As can be seen in the FLL case; in times of fear, panic could occur rapidly. Even if it’s a false alarm. In these crucial moments, it is important to have a consistent information stream to the passengers to avoid confusion. Since it is not directly clear which airport’s digital channel the passenger is using, the information should be pushed on all digital channels to reach every passenger.
In a crisis situation communication is everything. As a public venue where security and safety protocols should be at the highest level, we expect an Airport to have the most advanced digital tooling to inform their passengers. As we have displayed in this paper, the bar can be raised by creating a cloud based digital platform that controls all of the touchpoints. In such a platform, predefined protocols and messaging can be programmed and easily triggered to create the optimal information for the right passenger at the right time. This will not prevent the situation from happening, but it will hopefully reduce the impact.