Communicating in a Crisis: The Halifax International Airport Response to Sept. 11

By Connell, Gina | Communication World, October-November 2002 | Go to article overview

Communicating in a Crisis: The Halifax International Airport Response to Sept. 11


Connell, Gina, Communication World


On Sept. 11, 2001, while the world watched in horror at the devastation in the United States, Halifax International Airport employees mobilized to handle the logistical crisis that was unfolding on our own tarmac. At 9:40 a.m. Atlantic Standard Time, all flight operations were halted at U.S. airports for the first time in American history. At approximately 10 a.m., Halifax International Airport was notified to expect between 40 and 50 diverted aircraft.

Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, is a community of about 350,000 located on the eastern coast of the country. On average, our airport handles approximately 150 flights a day. To receive nearly one third of that volume all at once was an unprecedented load on systems and personnel. We were faced with processing 8,000 passengers through an arrivals facility that has the capacity to handle 900 per hour. Security was also a major concern, as no one knew at that time whether other terrorist operatives were among the passengers diverted to the airport. Because of the attacks in the U.S., media interest was intense.

FROM CONCEPT TO ACTION

Halifax International Airport Authority (HIAA) had recently taken over control of the airport from the federal government and had been operating the airport for a little over a year. Ironically, we were in the midst of developing our crisis communication plan and had scheduled a planning session for Sept. 20. The plan was still in the conceptual stages when we were forced to put it into action.

Soon after the first few planes hadlanded, our reception desk was inundated with calls from frantic relatives, friends and colleagues looking for immediate, accurate information. Our Visitor Information Booth logged more than 2,000 calls in 24 hours, and our web site was jammed with hundreds of e-mails.

At the time of the incident, the Communications and Public Affairs Department consisted of two full-time employees: Karen Sinclair, our communications manager, and me. We immediately called on Karen Kelloway, our consultant who was helping us with our crisis communication plan. As director, I participated directly in HIAA's Emergency Operations Centre (EOC), crafting messages from hourly EOC briefings and providing them to the communications manager and consultant to disseminate to all key audiences. We activated our media centre, and our president and CEO, Reg Milley, convened a news conference to deliver the initial briefing personally.

Following that first news conference, I acted as spokesperson, holding hourly media briefings after each EOC update and participating in one-on-one interviews as required for the duration of the four-day incident. The team handled approximately 300 media calls from all over the world--most requiring one-on-one interviews.

Our CEO held regular face-to-face briefings with employees and volunteer hosts. We used our urgent news vehicle, E-News Flash! to update employees and volunteers regularly via e-mail. Visitor Information Centre and reception staff were updated via regular information sheets. Time marked updates were posted on the web site as soon as new information was available. We answered e-mail requests, posted feedback on the web site and added photographs as they became available.

To ensure a coordinated approach, we also participated in conference calls with communicators from the Emergency Measures Organization, Transport Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and Halifax Regional Municipality. The municipality and other organizations handled the enormous job of providing transportation, accommodations, food and essentials for all the passengers stranded in Halifax for four days. On Sept. 14, we organized a special ceremony to mark the three minutes of silence observed nationwide to mourn the victims of the tragedy.

In the end, Halifax received the largest number of aircraft in the country. A total of 250 aircraft were diverted to 15 Canadian airports, with Halifax playing host to 41 from as far away as Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, Germany and Greece. …

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