Little Airport, Big Emergencies

This is an excellent article from the Wall Street Journal (Scott McCartney) about a little airport that shows what planning and preparation can do.

“Trouble lands here, sometimes twice a week.

Airline flights with security threats, sick passengers and mechanical problems often end up at Bangor International Airport—the first or last major airport in the U.S. for the hundreds of flights across the Atlantic Ocean every day. Flights that are running low on fuel or need to wait out bad weather at their destinations put down here, too.

The former Air Force base has an 11,440-foot-long runway – longer than anything at Boston’s Logan International Airport.
As a result, the airport in Bangor (pop. 35,000) is prepared for almost anything. Even though the airport has no scheduled international flights, it has a large international terminal with four empty gates. Customs and Border Protection officers are available on short notice, and a food stand sits ready with two cash registers. Two years ago, the airport bought a $700,000 heavy-duty tug capable of towing and pushing the largest jets in the world, including the Airbus A380 super jumbo jet.

“I hate to use the word routine, but we work these flights all the time,” said Anthony Caruso, interim airport director. “We plan for it. We train for it. The federal agencies understand Bangor’s role in this kind of incident.”

At Bangor, airport workers are trained to do both their regular jobs and pitch in for gate agent duty or baggage handling and even de-icing for the unexpected visiting jumbo jets. A local bus tour company has an agreement with the airport to bus passengers on short notice. (If it isn’t available, school buses are mobilized.)

The small-city airport is served by only three airlines, with about 20 regularly scheduled flights each day—most on 50-seat regional jets. But it has an 11,440-foot-long runway—longer than anything at Boston’s Logan International Airport. It has heavy-duty firefighting equipment and two nearby hospitals.

The airport keeps a “dispatch operations center” staffed round-the-clock—just in case. When a flight has to land unexpectedly and opts for Bangor, the airport operations center gets word from the Federal Aviation Administration, or sometimes directly from an airline. A manager in the operations center pulls out a bright-red notebook: “BGR Emergency Notification Checklist,” which uses the airport’s international code, BGR. Federal agencies such as Customs, the Transportation Security Administration and FBI are notified, along with service-providers like hospitals, hotels and restaurants.

Bangor Maine
Officials assemble at the airport—often in the dispatch center—and quickly plan what to do with the plane and passengers. If there is a security issue like a bomb threat, the plane is taken to an isolated part of the field. Otherwise, the international terminal is dusted off.
Since 2005, Bangor, a former Air Force base, has handled 647 diverted flights. Most have come in for fuel, such as a flurry of flights this spring that needed to stop for gas because of strong headwinds. But some have serious emergencies.

Last month, US Airways Flight 787 from Paris to Charlotte, N.C., dropped in after a passenger told the crew she had a surgically implanted bomb. The jet parked in a remote area and FBI agents took the woman, who had no checked luggage, off the plane. Police used bomb-sniffing dogs to check the aircraft before herding passengers onto local tour buses and taking them to the international terminal. (The woman wasn’t charged but was returned to France, authorities said.)

“It gets exciting every time, but that last one was the most exciting,” said chief dispatcher Eugene Foren. “This job is 98% boredom and 2% sheer terror.”

Bangor’s level of preparedness is a model for other airports still struggling to figure out their responsibility for diverted flights. This year, the U.S. Department of Transportation is requiring airports, as well as airlines, to submit contingency plans for lengthy tarmac delays. That follows several high-profile fiascoes where a lack of coordination between airports, airlines and the FAA along with shortages of manpower, equipment, gates and food left passengers stranded aboard planes in horrid conditions.

In addition to diverted flights, Bangor handles lots of U.S. troop flights shuttling soldiers to Iraq, Afghanistan and other points in the Middle East and Europe. Since 2003, 1.3 million troops have gone through Bangor. The airport created a garden and covered pavilion for greeting soldiers, and arranged with cellular companies to offer free phone calls.

Bangor also routinely does fuel stops for corporate jets that don’t have the range to make it from Europe to points in the U.S. beyond the East Coast. Customs officers stationed at the airport monitor planes as they taxi in, then board as soon as the engines shut down to inspect passengers. There is time for bathroom stops and loading up fresh catering (lobster rolls are popular).

The airport collects landing fees, fuel fees and ground-handling fees when airlines drop in unexpectedly. That typically adds up to $2,000 or so per flight, depending on the size of the plane. The revenue helps support the airport, but diversions aren’t a business that the airport can really count on.

“We can’t go out and try to drum up the business and say this year we want 500 diversions,” said Risteen Bahr, the airport’s marketing manager.”

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