What Happens to Airports During an Earthquake?
Recently, there was a strong magnitude 6 earthquake in Osaka, the second largest city in Japan. Osaka has two main airports-Kansai International (KIX) which handles both international and domestic flights, and Itami Airport (ITM) which handles domestic flights.
The epicenter of the quake this week was fairly close to ITM airport. However, the shaking was strong enough throughout the Kansai region that the transportation system was effectively crippled. Many train lines throughout Osaka were cancelled for the day and the bullet train here also suffered power outages.
The airports did not report much damage. The runways at KIX and ITM were not damaged at all, however, after the quake, flights were stopped so safety checks at KIX could occur, but soon after those checks, Kansai Airport Reported that ops had returned to normal, and there were few delays or cancellations at KIX. Itami Airport had a different story, however. Itami Airport had a number of cancellations and building damage, but as of June 20th, the airport operations have returned to normal.
Usually, during a quake, air traffic control alerts aircraft that an earthquake is occurring. This video shows that during a quake in Mexico last year, ATC alerted aircraft about the quake, instructs the aircraft to take up a hold, or plan a diversion. Once the safety checks are complete, the aircraft are instruction to leave the hold and enter the landing pattern.
Generally, airports today are constructed with utmost regard to earthquake engineering, especially in earthquake prone countries like Japan and Mexico. Damage, therefore, is very limited at airports. However, the real nightmare for travelers and airport officials is ground transportation after the earthquake.
In Osaka’s case, KIX and ITM are served primarily by trains. ITM has a monorail that connects it to the subway, and KIX has the JR and Nankai Lines that operate limited express trains to the city proper. Both of these airports suffered nightmarish ground transportation problems after the quake this week. JR and Nankai had suspended services for the bulk of the day, and the monorail at ITM resumed services in the afternoon, but not after stranding thousands at the airport. Highways were temporarily shut down and busses stopped. Many travelers were forced to sleep at the terminal and it took a few days for the glut of stranded passengers to get to their destinations.
So what should you do if you are at an airport during a major earthquake?
First, don’t panic. Panicking means you might make an impulsive mistake that could cost you…your wallet, your luggage, or your life. Second, during the quake, stay in an open area and be watchful of items that could fall over.
Once the quake is over, check online and see if your flight is affected. Cellphone service might be affected but if you’re able to, check flightaware and search your flight there. Keep refreshing the site to see if status changes affect your flight. Also, check FlightRadar24 and see if flights are still landing at your airport, or if they’re diverting away from the airport. That could mean a ground stop is in place at the airport, which will affect your flight.
If your flight is cancelled, call your airline’s help desk line immediately. If you’re unable due to cell service disruption, there should be a kiosk at the airport which dials directly to the airline’s number. Worst case scenario is you get in line at the manned help desk at the concourse. Often times, assistance is given right at the gate. Standard ‘cancelled flight due to external reasons’ approach to getting your itinerary rescheduled.
If you’re landing at an airport affected by a quake, or if you decide to return home after your flights are cancelled for the day, the strongest thing I can advise you to do is be patient. Trains and busses are going to be out of service. Highways might be closed, and debris might impede travel on surface roads. Keep a strong eye on the status of railways and bus services, and the moment you see a change for the positive, make a move. I would not advise waiting in line at service counters because there is little they can do to help.
Here in Japan, the railways provide self-service ticket kiosks where you can purchase reserved seat tickets. If you hadn’t bought a ticket yet, and you see the railways beginning to resume service, purchase a ticket and make your way to the platform as quickly as you can.
For the busses, patience again is a virtue. Stay close to the ticket counter and heed updates from the staff.
If you need to stay at the airport overnight due to cancelled flights or cancelled transit, the hotel rooms are going to be overbooked quickly, so act fast, if you can. Because a quake is outside the scope of airlines’ control, most likely airlines won’t put stranded passengers in hotels if the airport is shut down due to a quake. If you are unable to get a hotel room for the night, the airport probably will provide blankets. Again, patience here is a virtue. Don’t demand unnecessary things from the airport staff. Keep calm, keep a level head, and heed updates from the staff.
Most importantly of all, be safe and be mindful of those around you. You might be calm, cool, and collected, but someone else might not have read this article and is panicking a storm. Help people trying to figure out where they need to go or what they need to do, and be kind overall.
Hope this helps out, in case of the inevitable future earthquake. Please share with me other advice you might have, or experiences you had while flying during an earthquake.