Naysaying emerges in wake of LAX shootings*

shooting.jpgVery predictable - and from what I've seen, very misplaced. Even in normal times, airports can be precarious balancing acts, with many thousands of passengers coming and going at any given time and little allowance for the unexpected. When somebody walks in and starts shooting up the place, controlled chaos quickly turns into pandemonium, as we saw Friday morning. Perhaps coordination could have been better, but considering that LAX was back up a little over 24 hours after the incident, it's hard to find fault with police, airlines, and airport officials. All seemed to do a pretty good job. Of course, that makes for dull headlines, so now we're seeing City Councilman Mike Bonin, enabled by local media, suggesting that somehow, some way, the response should have been better. (I wonder how these folks would fare during a sustained emergency.) So far the evidence is thin. From the LAT:

The councilman cited complaints about emergency exits that weren't properly marked, poor communications, flaws in evacuation procedures and inadequate support services for passengers. Many travelers were held for hours in the Bradley terminal, he said, with limited access to food and water and few updates from LAX staff. Those stranded overnight were not informed about alternatives, Bonin added, including a shelter set up by the Red Cross and contact information for nearby hotels. Others did not receive clear direction from airlines on rescheduled and relocated flights, he said. Whatever evacuation plan airport officials may have had Friday "wasn't being followed or implemented," Bonin said in an interview.

"Cited complaints," eh? Many of these second- and third-hand claims seem overwrought, especially since portions of the airport resumed operations later that day, and by Saturday afternoon even Terminal 3, where the shootings took place, was open for business. I was out of town on Friday and could still get updated information from the airport's Twitter feed and its website (which was running slow because of increased usage). All right, so not everyone has Twitter or access to the Internet. And in the first few hours, information was undoubtedly sketchy, as it is in any emergency that involves multiple agencies, federal and local, suddenly being shoved together to sort things out. What's worrisome about this week's soul-searching is that it appears based on hysterical generalizations of what happened - and that elected officials might feel compelled to introduce costly and unnecessary additions to an already well-secured operation. Politicians have a way of screwing everything up. From this week's Business Update on KPCC:

Steve Julian: Business analyst, Mark Lacter, how did the airlines respond to shooting and its aftermath?

Mark Lacter: Generally pretty well, Steve, considering that the airport was effectively closed for several hours on Friday, and most of Terminal 3 was out of commission until Saturday afternoon. You know, there's always this precarious balance in operating airlines and airports, even when things are normal. Just so many flights coming in and going out, and so many thousands people using the facility at any given time - and it really doesn't take much to upset the balance. So, when you have something horrific take place and you see all those travelers stranded outside the terminals, the ripple effects are enormous - not just at LAX but all over the country.

Julian: More than a thousand flights were either canceled or delayed on Friday.

Lacter: And, there was a further complication because the airlines flying out of Terminal 3 are not the big legacy carriers like United and American that have all kinds of resources, but smaller operations with less flexibility. It's not like there's an empty aircraft just sitting in a hangar waiting to take passengers wherever they want to go. Actually, the airlines have gotten better at arranging re-bookings when there's a snowstorm or some other emergency that gives them advance warning. But obviously, there was no advance warning last Friday, so the carriers needed to improvise in handling passengers whose flights were cancelled.

Julian: What did they do?

Lacter: One step was waiving the fees normally charged to re-book flights (and that's gotten to be a pretty penny). In some cases they also waived the difference in the price of the original ticket and the re-booked ticket. But, the policies varied according to the airline, and we heard about travelers not receiving hotel or food vouchers, or having to buy a brand new ticket on another airline if they wanted to avoid the wait - and that can be expensive. Which raises another issue: planes tend to be completely full these days because airlines have been cutting back on the number of flights. And that can be a problem if you're taking a route that doesn't have too many flights in the first place. So, it gets really complicated.

Julian: Why do you think we haven't we heard more horror stories from passengers?

Lacter: Well, look at the cities that the airlines in Terminal 3 fly to - New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Dallas. They're all served by several other carriers. L.A. to New York, in particular, is one of the busiest routes in the world, which means that it's also one of the most competitive. So, even if your flight was cancelled, there's a good chance you'd be able to find space by Saturday (which is normally a slower day for air travel). This is one big reason generally why people like LAX. It's just very convenient.

*Update: Just got off the phone with Mike Bonin, who had good things to say about the Twitter feed, but noted how much of that information was not disseminated as well as it might have been. He and airport officials have been talking about establishing better ways of informing passengers and others on where they should go and what they should do (Parking Lot C was being used as a pickup spot). A texting system might help - or perhaps installing electronic signs in the terminals that can provide updates, much like the freeway signs. In any event, the Airport Commission would take the lead in implementing those changes.

**Update: Another problem, as I'm hearing from several readers, was the lack of coordination among law enforcement, with lots of police officers on site but not knowing what to do. Perhaps the fact that multiple agencies were handling the incident added to the confusion. Obviously this isn't great, especially considering how contained Friday's event turned out to be. But again, some perspective is in order - with LAX you're dealing with a small footprint that handles tens of thousands of people, many of them not familiar with L.A. and many of them not conversant in English. You're also dealing with a law enforcement culture that tends to be cautious and methodical in these situations, perhaps to a fault. In those circumstances, it's inevitable that not everything will go as planned and not everybody will be satisfied.

More by Mark Lacter:
American-US Air settlement with DOJ includes small tweak at LAX
Socal housing market going nowhere fast
Amazon keeps pushing for faster L.A. delivery
Another rugged quarter for Tribune Co. papers
How does Stanford compete with the big boys?
Those awful infographics that promise to explain and only distort
Best to low-ball today's employment report
Further fallout from airport shootings
Crazy opening for Twitter*
Should Twitter be valued at $18 billion?
Recent Business Update on KPCC stories:
Naysaying emerges in wake of LAX shootings*
Holiday shopping: On your marks, get set... spend!
What to do with all that bad chicken?
Why it's hard to gauge progress of health care programs
Why L.A. isn't being hit too hard by shutdown - for now

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Mark Lacter
Mark Lacter created the LA Biz Observed blog in 2006. He posted until the day before his death on Nov. 13, 2013.
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