How to Stay Safe at Airports, Train Stations, and Other Public Places

The temporary entrance to departures at Brussels Airport

By Jonathan Spira on 31 August 2016
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Shootings in public places such as airports, train stations, and shopping malls have left travelers on edge. Brussels, Paris, Istanbul, and Munich have each left a disturbing imprint in the minds of many travelers and the recent unfounded reports of shootings, first at John F. Kennedy International Airport two weeks ago and then at Los Angeles International Airport this past weekend, only exacerbated the concerns of travelers for their safety.

Airports are frequent targets of terrorism. An explosion in Moscow five years ago killed and injured dozens of travelers and the attacks at airports in Vienna, Paris, and Rome in the 1970s had similar devastating results.

After the Brussels airport attack, many cities raised the topic of where the first ring of security should be placed. At airports in the United States and Europe, for example, almost anyone can stroll into a terminal unchecked. At Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, however, travelers are scrutinized at checkpoints several miles before arriving at the terminals. Anyone deemed suspicious can be questioned and have their baggage searched at that point.

I was at JFK when the evacuation unfolded and, while I had scant information available to me about what was going on at the time, it is crystal clear that what most people did to avoid the non-existent shooter would have not kept them from possible harm. Indeed, the mass hysteria that caused the subsequent evacuation of two additional terminals, namely Terminals 1 and 2, after Terminal 8 had been evacuated, was mostly likely fueled by someone misreading a social media post about the goings on in T8.

Security experts widely criticized the airport and police department’s handling of the JFK incident, and the patchwork of agencies with various roles assigned to keep the airport safe.

Here’s what you can do to stay safe if a situation is unfolding in a public space:

1.) In the event of an incident, especially a stampede, seek refuge or go in the opposite direction of the crowd.

In Terminal 1 at JFK, one TSA agent shouted about a bomb and another ran through the terminal screaming that there was an active shooter and that someone had been shot. People were running in complete disorder but the worst thing anyone could have done at that point was to join the stampeding crowd. Hundreds of people have been killed over the past 80 years by being trampled at soccer stadiums across the globe and many survivors spoke of heading in the opposite direction of the crowd.

2.) Move away – not towards – the presumed incident.

Don’t let your curiosity get the best of you – if you hear a loud noise that doesn’t belong (such as a shot fired in an airport), immediately proceed away from it. Don’t wait around to find out what it was all about.

3.) Head airside upon arrival.

Even when the security perimeter begins well ahead of the airport, any place where people congregate, be it check-in areas or the security line itself, could become a target. Passengers arriving at Baghdad International Airport go through two security screenings and are transported by bus to the terminal buildings but, in November 2014, a suicide car bomber managed to injure five people at the airport’s outskirts.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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