Panic at JFK Airport is a critical teachable moment

The outcome could have been tragic.

It wasn’t a terrorist attack or mass shooting. There was no gun, no bomb, no danger.

But there could have been. And if the chaos that unfolded at Kennedy Airport on Aug. 14 had involved a real threat, the outcome could have been tragic.

Instead, it was a false alarm that began when callers to 911 reported gunshots. They may have heard the celebratory aftermath of Usain Bolt’s Olympic win in the 100 meters, as travelers in airport bars and restaurants watched on television and reacted. Or the noise may have come from metal chairs falling over or something else. Panic ensued, both Terminal 1 and Terminal 8 were evacuated, and thousands of travelers ran without knowing why.

There were reports of Transportation Security Administration employees leaving their posts, of security officers who didn’t know how to direct travelers, of law enforcement agencies that were not coordinated, of a situation that was anything but calm or controlled.

There’s a lot we don’t know. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is investigating, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo began a state-led review. Sen. Chuck Schumer said the incident underscores a lack of readiness and coordination. Our airports should be prepared for the worst, and personnel must know how to respond. So far, reports indicate that some agencies may have responded better than others. But if one level of security doesn’t work, the whole system could fail. Best practices should be shared. Coordination among agencies is key, from the TSA to the Port Authority to U.S. Customs and Border Protection to private security companies on site. And everything we learn must be put into action at LaGuardia and Newark Liberty International airports as well.

State and federal officials have to determine whether airport security is adequate, and how to improve preparedness, coordination and communication. It’s easy to get this right during a drill or around a training session table, but the JFK incident might be a better indicator of the actual chaotic response to an emergency.

If that’s the case, something has to change.

The Editorial Board