Our View: Airport evacuation underscores two lessons and raises a question about the difference between jokes and threats

October 20, 2012 

The evacuation of the South Terminal of Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on Sunday began with a dumb, one-off joke about a bomb in a suitcase.

That leads to the first lesson, and it's the oldest: Don't make jokes about bombs, terrorism or hijacking at the airport. That's been the official advice of the government for decades, long before 9/11, long before we had a Transportation Security Administration. The harmless joke isn't, because serious people are paid to take it seriously. And hundreds of passengers pay the price of thoughtlessness.

So leave the jokes at home.

That takes us to the question -- how much leeway should TSA and airport workers have to use discretion in judging whether to treat a joke as a threat? They're in a tough spot. But judgment may suggest that instead of clearing the airport, officials could pull the comedian and his luggage out of line for a session with unsmiling people, long enough to determine that only he needs to miss his flight, not hundreds of other passengers.

Airport officials were already talking about their after-action reviews early last week and the questions of judgment should be included. We're not second-guessing. They have to err on the side of threat, not joke. But not every one-off comment should prompt the press of the panic button.

Finally, the second lesson is that the airport has to be better prepared to handle such an evacuation with better organization and communication. Winter rules much of the year here. If you're going to send people outside -- including old folks and babies -- you need to have a plan to swiftly get them somewhere safe and warm. By all accounts, airport and security workers did their best to calm and comfort but still people were left without direction and information, and out in the cold to boot.

A better plan to get people out of the weather and to a place where they can be easily reached with updated information will make the next evacuation -- the one all hands hope never happens -- easier for everyone.

BOTTOM LINE: Airport needs to tighten up evacuation plan; comedians need to cool it.

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