Operations were disrupted at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, when activists from Black Lives Matter were able to shut down at least one terminal at the airport, for a period of time, and caused traffic jams for inbound travelers. Other airport operators should pay close attention as this may become a more popular form of protest moving forward. Travelers may have to account for delays due to such demonstrations, and airport operators may be pressured to ensure the situation is effectively managed in the future.
However, this is not the first time an airport has experienced a disruption due to protesters. Protests at airports happen frequently throughout the country.
Title 14 CFR Part 139.325 (6) requires airports to have plans for crowd control. Guidance for crowd control plans are expanded in FAA Advisory Circular 150/5200–31C Airport Emergency Plans.
Crowds gather at airports for a variety of reasons: to conduct peaceful assemblies, as the result of an accident or natural disaster, or for hostile reasons. To the extent that crowds can inadvertently or deliberately disrupt airport operations, airport operators attempt to accommodate various forms of protest to the extent possible. Airport operators also often have rules and regulations for the application of permits to conduct protests, and designate specific areas that provide public visibility, for such demonstrations. However, a sudden protest is an unplanned event, calling for rapid action on the part of the airport operator.
The number one objective is to ensure the safety and security of the airfield itself. Unauthorized personnel in the security areas of an airport would constitute a security breach and likely draw federal charges related to unlawful interference with aircraft operations. However, it is interesting question to consider whether a protest conducted by individuals in the public area of the terminal, or in the landside areas (where passengers are picked up and dropped off), which causes a disruption to flight operations, could also constitute unlawful interference.
Irrespective of rightness of the cause (I also happen to believe that black lives matter, in fact pretty much all lives matter, but I’m addressing this from an airport operations safety and security perspective), a protest at a local airport has the potential to not just disrupt operations at the airport, but also to disrupt operations of the national airspace system. Therefore, airport police must deal with the problem swiftly and safely. I’m a fan of the MSP police, having trained many of their officers in airport security functions, and I also believe that MSP is one of the airport police departments that is doing it right, when it comes to policing an airport. Hopefully, there will be some good lessons learned that they can share with the industry about this event.
The ideal objective when handling a sudden crowd control response is to move the protesters to an area where they can continue their protest (to the extent it is lawful), and to get passenger and flight operations moving again. Airport operators should revisit their Crowd Control section of the AEP to determine if it is adequate to handle such a response. Key areas to consider are:
- Rapid notification to police agencies;
- Consideration or pre-establishment of alternate routes for vehicle traffic;
- Lockdown of certain areas of the airport, primarily the security areas;
- Engage with airport tenants, TSA, and others that work at the airport or are otherwise impacted about their roles;
- Only allowing traveling passengers, to the extent possible, into the public areas of terminal building, until such time as the protest situation is handled;
- Having barricades, other materials, and personnel (such as CERT team personnel – many large commercial service airports have various forms of in-house CERT teams that assist in airport incidents), prepared in advance. All personnel should be trained on their roles during such an incident.
- Use of CCTV and other technologies to assist police and security personnel in handling the situation.
- Consider that fire access routes that use public roads may be closed or blocked, inhibiting a police, fire or emergency medical response.
Side note: unlike the Mall of America, which is essentially private property and the owner of the property can have people lawfully removed, many airports are public property, to a certain extent. Airport operators – make sure you review your city, county or authorities’ policies on public protest, and that your rules and regulations allow for lawful demonstrations. Also, review your AEP to and discuss with your staff how you would handle such an issue.