Lessons Learned from Airport Crises

Managing an airport – one of the busiest places imaginable – during a time of crisis is a challenge for anyone. Decisions must be made in the heat of the moment, with many different people looking to you for direction. It’s no wonder mistakes are made. Let’s explore some of the most infamous airport crises and identify key learnings.

Gatwick Drone Crisis – December 2018 

Between the 10th and the 12th of December 2018, Gatwick Airport cancelled hundreds of flights – leaving 140,000 passengers stranded – after a drone was spotted flying in the vicinity. The event garnered huge press attention, so airport management were under immense pressure to bring the situation under control.

Passenger frustration grew when the Civil Aviation Authority announced that the airport wasn’t obliged to provide compensation because the event was deemed an ‘extraordinary circumstance.’ There was certainly an extraordinary response: both the police and military were called in to attempt to rectify the situation.

There was talk of attempting to shoot it out the sky, or even capture it with a trained eagle. Efforts were futile, however: the drone was never found. 

The cause of this debacle is clear – Gatwick was not prepared to deal with this new kind of threat. It wasn't entirely their fault, of course. They rightly put the safety of passengers above all else. However, the emergency services lacked the technology and expertise to resolve the incident and were left with nothing to do but wait for the situation to rectify itself. 

The lesson learned: Drones have been a known airspace risk for a good few years now, so there's no reason why Gatwick shouldn't have been ready to deal with a situation like this. The airport wasn't suitably prepared and it cost their reputation dearly. Don’t make the same mistake.

Learn how CIM helps over 45 airports in Norway be prepared for crises 

Eyjafjallajökull Ash Cloud – April 2010

When Eyjafjallajökull, an Icelandic volcano, erupted in 2010, the resulting ash cloud caused severe air travel disruption; 20 countries across northern and western Europe were forced to close their airports, leaving 10 million passengers stranded abroad until the ash cleared.

Volcanic eruptions are by their nature unpredictable, but many airports across Europe were unprepared to cope with having flights grounded for almost a week – a scenario that could rear its head for all manner of reasons.

Having a more robust structure in place to handle unforeseen circumstances could have greatly reduced the panic and confusion felt by trapped passengers, who could have been given access to accommodation, kept updated about the incident more effectively, and compensated for their troubles.

While new measures and guidelines have been put in place since 2010 regarding ash clouds, being reactive simply isn’t good enough. Airports must be proactive in their crisis management preparations.

The lesson learned: Always be prepared for any eventuality, no matter how unlikely. If something can happen, it will happen eventually. You need to take a proactive approach. Do you know who needs alerting, how you’ll communicate the situation, and how you’ll get it under control?

Heathrow Terminal 5 Opening Week – March 2008

When Heathrow opened Terminal 5 – its state-of-the-art new building years in the planning – it was lauded to be a fresh start for the airport. Costing a little over £4 billion, the chief executive of British Airways, Willie Walsh, asserted that Terminal 5 would “change the way international travellers look at Britain and restore our principal airport to its rightful position as one of the world’s best.”

As ever, pride came before a fall.

Opening day for Terminal 5 was described as disastrous. Flights were cancelled, staff didn’t know where to direct passengers, and baggage took over two hours to arrive in the airport. The mayhem continued for days as British Airways – the only airline operating from the terminal – struggled to get things under control. 

Their handling of the crisis was ineffective. They failed to give straight answers to the press and only compensated passengers up to £100 – when accommodation was costing upwards of £200. The director general of the British Chambers of Commerce called the affair a 'PR disaster' and it led to BA losing 7% of its customers

The lesson learned: The most predominant mistake BA made was, again, failing to prepare sufficiently. They said they ran rigorous exercises prior to opening, but the fiasco that ensued speaks for itself. It’s clear that BA was not adequately prepared to open Terminal 5. When things did go south, they could have dealt with it more effectively by honestly communicating with the media and properly compensating the public for their inconvenience. 

Prepare or Fail

The examples here are fairly extreme cases, but they serve to highlight that preparation is key and goes a long way to ensure crisis situations are dealt with correctly. The fallout of these incidents could have been far less damaging if the organisations involved had had the foresight to be prepared for any eventuality. 

Is your airport ready to deal with crisis? Download our Avinor e-book today – no sign-up required – to see how CIM helps over 45 airports in Norway prepare for anything.  

New call-to-action


By Jamie Milligan

Jamie is leading the Business Development efforts for One Voice International. Although he is new to the industry, he has a wealth of experience across the sales function; for the last 5 years he has been working in the translation and localisation industry building and developing complex language solutions for the E-Commerce, Finance and Manufacturing industries. Jamie has a degree in Sports Development from Leeds Metropolitan University and in his spare time enjoys playing Hockey and Golf and exploring different foods of the world.

More blog posts from this author

Subscribe to the blog