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JFK, LaGuardia incidents spur call for public alert upgrade

An airport advocacy group is urging the Port Authority to improve its communications after the agency twice failed to alert the public about a possible terrorism event at an area airport.

“Security must be priority number one, and both recent incidents at New York airports demonstrate the need for a better airport-wide responses and clearer communication with passengers,” the Global Gateway Alliance said.

The latest incident, an unoccupied vehicle at LaGuardia’s main terminal, came just hours after the executive director of the Port Authority gave an update to the agency’s board of directors on an earlier incident at Kennedy Airport.

“I also acknowledge we have lessons to learn in terms of communications, especially with the traveling public in situations like this,” Patrick Foye told the Port Authority Board at its monthly meeting on Sept. 22.

About eight hours later, the main terminal at LaGuardia, which is undergoing a $4 billion renovation, was evacuated at 10:30 p.m. because of an unattended vehicle outside the terminal.

The Port Authority issued an alert at 1 a.m., more than two hours later reading: “LaGuardia Central Terminal B and its frontage roadway have reopened following a temporary security closure out of an abundance of caution.”

The PA, which operates the three major area airports, has not been able provide any evidence to show how the public was kept informed during the latest incident.

The PA is responsible for overall airport operations, but each terminal is operated separately.

The operator of the main terminal, LaGuardia Gateway Partners, said in a statement that it made announcements over its public address system, and its staff directed travelers.

“We are looking forward to collaborating with the Port Authority on increasing the role of social media in incident communications,” the terminal operator said.

The Global Gateway Alliance, a business-oriented group that promotes local airports, said the two incidents showed passengers should be kept informed “so they know what to do to be safe in a real emergency,” its chairman, Joe Sitt, said in the email.

The Port Authority communications should include phone alert for people in the immediate area and more timely updates on social media and websites, he said.

“Passengers need to know who the security buck stops with,” he said.

A report of an active shooter at Kennedy Airport on Aug. 14 led officials to shut down two terminals and forced airlines to cancel some flights.

A similar incident occurred at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) two weeks later.

Both incidents were unfounded and airport operators in both cities were criticized for failing to keep the public informed as the incidents were unfolding.

“As the incident at JFK and the similar scare at LAX ... illustrated to us, the power of social media in this day and age has made communications and accurate information flow in these situations more dynamic, fluid and frankly more challenging,” Foye said.

“We have lessons to learn certainly and just wanted to note for the public that we are in the process of doing so and will be reporting back to [Port Authority] security committee, the board and the public,” Foye said.

He said he would recommend that the board hire an outside consultant to help with its internal review, much of which is being done behind closed doors because of security concerns.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo created a review panel after the JFK incident, and U.S. Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) has called for a congressional hearing to determine whether airports are prepared to handle active shooter incidents.

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