Can Airports Double as Resiliency Hubs?

by Liz Ranieri

Singapore Airlines Check-in Counter at PEK. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Impacts from climate change are increasing at an extraordinary rate, from extreme weather events to drought, wildfires, and sea level rise. Additionally, novel contagions and viruses shape the new normal of global pandemics. Therefore, communities need to prepare and adapt. According to the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, the concept of resiliency means “the ability of a system, community or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate to and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner.” In this context, one emerging idea is to develop “resilience hubs” where people and resources could be gathered to increase safety and quality of life. However, this idea remains largely undefined, lacking in specific characteristics or functions, and is still under-researched in terms of its connection to transportation and land use.

1989 Lomo Prieta Earthquake. Photo Credit: Los Angeles Times

To serve a broader goal of all critical infrastructure to be as resilient as possible and enhance community safety, all new and retrofitted airports – i.e., urban, suburban, and rural – should be designed, engineered, and built as resiliency hubs, utilizing pre-existing and new transportation infrastructure in focused partnership with expert emergency management professionals.

Emergency management and critical infrastructure are intrinsically codependent. Emergency managers require technical and interpersonal training, access to real-time data, and life experience with any given critical infrastructure in order to be effective; they also need the ability — and confidence — to forecast situations resulting from natural or man-made disasters and react to them, even if they don’t have all of the necessary information. Pre-disaster, emergency management provides policy and safeguards that inform the design and planning of critical infrastructure and its development, operation, and maintenance; however, post-disaster responses to restore or improve critical infrastructure, operations, or lifelines require well-orchestrated deployments of disaster framework plans, managed by an individual or team, with clearly defined chains of command and an agile ability to shift gears with the unfolding of a situation or event.

Disaster relief supplies from several different countries including food, water and medical supplies in an aircraft hangar waiting to be picked up at the Sultan Iskandar Muda Airport in Sumatra, Indon. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The relationship between the critical infrastructure system of transportation, specifically aviation, and its emergency management protocols around pre-disaster planning and post-disaster response is complex. We propose that all new and retrofitted airports be built as resiliency hubs for the following reasons:

  • generally, most airports have excellent transportation access with a high level of redundancy, i.e., public, private, by land, air and, if coastal, by water;
  • at a planning level, airports are campuses and urban microcosms, each with their own governance, including first responders, police, cybersecurity safeguards, fire, and emergency medical services;
  • per building codes, airports are already required to be built at a very high standard of construction;
  • airports have many lifelines in place, such as food, health services, cold/dry storage, advanced communication systems, and self-sustaining energy systems with sophisticated energy backup;
  • airports have exceptional HVAC systems to mitigate airborne contamination;
  • airports have ample emergency staging space, with opportunities to utilize hangars for regional and national events.

In Jon Favreau’s July 2022 Offline podcast interview with Matt Ball, the author of Metaverse, Ball makes the case that the Metaverse will change as well as complement our lives. He describes the Metaverse as a 3D internet.

Framework for the Metaverse. Image Source: Matthew Ball

We can get a sense of the future of airport emergency management through a case study Ball discusses in the podcast:  the Hong Kong International Airport, which already runs on “unity-ending” software (3D gaming technology) used to simulate the entire airport in a virtual reality model. According to Ball, this tool operates as a “digital twin” and can test a myriad of disaster scenarios that are airport-specific, as well as larger regional events, i.e., fire, flood, or terrorist incidents, providing critical data to inform design responses to single or multiple scenarios.

Hong Kong International Airport. Image Source: Reduper

It also serves as a way to track data to better monitor the performance of the building, such as evaluating the implications of the density of people in the building, monitoring energy use and supply/demand needs, calculating CO2 emissions, etc., and can be utilized for larger emergency planning. Testing through 3D graphic-based computer modeling also allows emergency managers to obtain detailed information with a high level of accuracy, complement real-life enacted test drills, grow their understanding of emergency response times, and provide critical scenario-based information to ensure that breached lifelines or breakdowns in critical infrastructure can be quickly mitigated. The fact that some airports are already running on this technology is further evidence that airports are well-suited for operation as resiliency hubs in the event of a disaster.

Many may recall Operation Yellow Ribbon, a post-disaster emergency response to the September 11 attacks, in which Canada’s Gander International Airport in Newfoundland handled the diversion of civilian airline flights and played host to 38 airliners, totaling 6,122 passengers and 473 crew members. Canada’s goal was to ensure that potentially destructive air traffic was removed from U.S. airspace as quickly as possible, away from potential targets, and instead placed on the ground in Canada, at military and civilian airports located primarily in several Canadian provinces.

Operation Yellow Ribbon. Image Source: Interesting Engineering

Immediately following the attacks, Canada activated its emergency response system to assist the U.S. This was an intracounty collaboration between Canada and the U.S., with both countries’ respective aviation agencies working together, in real time, under a tragic and unfolding series of terrorist events; it was an excellent example of the codependency of emergency management and critical infrastructure.

Though there has been analysis on airports and aviation as forms of critical infrastructure, the role of regional airports in a resilient society is understudied. FEMA does provide a Resilience Analysis and Planning Tool (RAPT), a free GIS web map which allows federal, state, local, tribal and territorial emergency managers and other community leaders to examine the interplay of census data, infrastructure locations, and hazards, including real-time weather forecasts, historic disasters, and estimated annualized frequency of hazard risk; however, this tool could be more focused on assessing opportunities for airports to grow resilience as well as risk for airports post-disaster. Brad Templeton, in his July 2021 piece for Forbes on the future of transportation, argues that a core lesson is to keep your infrastructure simple and general, rather than imagine you understand the “application” that will use it enough to try to solve its problems. He goes on to say that infrastructure changes at the pace of decades, while digital technology changes daily. Furthermore, it’s useless to plan for 2030s digital cars with the knowledge of 2021 — you can try but you will almost certainly be wrong. The best we can do is make transportation infrastructure as flexible as possible.

Image Source: Forbes

Though his argument is sound, it doesn’t recognize that virtual tools (advanced technologies) can provide critical data and information for planners and emergency managers as well as shape the design, engineering, and construction to increase overall resiliency. Because they already contain so many elements necessary for a resiliency hub, aviation infrastructure and airports should be made more flexible by building for dual purposes — the everyday aviation needs, and the event-driven resiliency needs. If we as a society are more open to new hybrid typologies and can provide the policy and funding to allow for this kind of dual functionality, we can better serve communities pre- and post-disasters.



Center for Disaster Philanthropy, “Resilience

Thayanne G. M. Ciriaco and Stephen D. Wong, “Review of Resilience Hubs and Associated Transportation Needs,” Working Paper, University of Alberta Revue Group, June 2022.

What the F*** is the Metaverse,” Offline with Jon Favreau, Spotify podcast, July 17, 2022.

Operation Yellow Ribbon,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, last edited July 31, 2022.

Christine Große, Për M. Olausson and Bo Svensson, “Resilience Endangered: The Role of Regional Airports in Remote Areas in Sweden,” Infrastructures 2021, 6, 167.

FEMA, “Resilience Analysis and Planning Tool,” last updated Aug. 12, 2022.

Brad Templeton, “Forget Smart Cities, ‘Stupid’ Infrastructure Is The Solution For Future Transportation,” Forbes, July 27, 2021.


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