Austin FAA Tower Floods

Responsive Communications

Torrential storms dropped over 13 inches of rain on Austin-Bergstrom International Airport on Friday, October 30, 2015. This historic 500-year rain event flooded the radar approach facility of the FAA’s Air Traffic Control Tower and caused major disruptions for airlines on the flood day with cancellations and, for virtually three weeks thereafter, reduced capacity, changed flight times and cancellations.

Over 11 inches of rain fell in a two hour period and by 10:20 a.m. the ground floor of the tower was under water. It caused an evacuation of the tower so that air traffic controllers would not be stranded in the upper level. Additionally, the entire airfield briefly closed during the peak of the downpour.

The flood caused the cancellation of 106 departures on October 30. With no radar operational at the Austin, Texas airport, radar control was transferred to Houston, Texas. Lack of radar on-site for approaching aircraft necessitated greater space between arrivals and reduced the capacity of service to Austin’s airport. Through Saturday, October 31, until a temporary tower arrived and was operational on Tuesday, November 3, over 20 departures a day were cancelled and arrivals were limited to between 10-20 per hour pending weather. It took nearly three weeks before FAA services were fully restored on Nov. 17, 2015 and air traffic capacity at Austin’s airport returned to 100 percent.

Airport Public Information staff teamed with FAA Public Affairs staff working closely together to disseminate accurate, timely information for travelers and media. The status of FAA functions at Austin’s airport was included in this coordinated messaging. The three week long coordinated effort produced message products including: 13 news releases/ media advisories, airport Facebook messages totaling 23 posts with a reach of 160,463, a total of 26 Tweets (not counting conversations with customers), an onsite media event, and talking points. Message production, coordination and distribution was daily from Friday, Oct. 30 – Thursday, Nov. 5. On Nov. 17, the final message of this event was sent announcing the FAA Air Traffic Control Tower re-opened at Austin’s airport and operations had returned to normal.

Entry Statement

1. Project Goals: 

• Inform the public about the flood, its impact on FAA functional status and its subsequent effect on flights.
• Assist FAA with quick and accurate communications to public and media.
• Media relations: Field questions from reporters and coordinate responses with FAA.
• Accuracy of information.

2. Production: 

Airport Public Information staff worked closely with FAA Public Affairs staff to coordinate, produce and disseminate accurate information for travelers and the news media. Communications content included the status of flights and FAA functions at Austin’s airport and reminded travelers to check their flight status before coming to the airport. Message products produced by the coordinated effort between airport and FAA staff included: News releases/ media advisories (total 13), social media posts (26), a media event, and talking points. News releases/ media advisories were distributed to local and national media by airport staff and posted on the airports Web site. FAA and Austin airport staff coordinated social media message postings and facilitated re-tweeting or tagging on each other’s Facebook messages, talk points and responses to media questions for use by Austin airport Public Information staff.
News releases/media advisories, all of which are posted to the airport’s Facebook and Twitter account, were distributed as follows:
• Friday, Oct. 30 –
- Airfield closed due to weather
- Airport airfield re-opened
- FAA Statement – Austin Air Traffic Control Tower and Terminal Radar Approach Control facility flooded
- Limited operations begun, FAA statement on flooded tower
- FAA Statement – Austin approach radar controlled transferred to Houston FAA, Austin tower damage being evaluated, Temporary tower facility being transported to Austin

• Saturday, Oct. 31 – Austin airport reminds travelers to check flight status,- heavy rains continue to impact flights, FAA statement on flooded tower
• Sunday, Nov. 1 – Fewer delays, check flight status
• Monday, Nov. 2 – Check flight status, airport experiencing delays
• Tuesday, Nov. 3 – FAA media event – Photo opps and interview at temporary tower
• Wednesday, Nov. 4 – Updated FAA statement – FAA return to tower cab, Austin radar facility under repair
• Thursday, Nov. 5 – FAA statement – low altitude approach transferred to San Antonio, weather delays today, efficiency improvement increases to flight flow to 90 percent capacity
• Tuesday, Nov. 10: – FAA reports air traffic is back to about 90 percent of normal Austin’s traffic volume, travelers check flight status
• Tuesday, Nov. 17 – FAA statement: back in tower, normal operations resume

3. Evaluation: 

• $245,796 – The estimated publicity value of media coverage of releases and advisories distributed
• 246 news stories documented
• FAA and Austin airport staff worked well together
• The City of Austin Aviation Department’s incident report cited under “What Worked,” “Communication via Facebook and Twitter with passengers and general public.”
• Tweet posted by follower @scottgilman: "Talk about a tough day as a social media manager. How about the poor soul running @AUStinAirport? Great job under a lot of stress. #atx"

4. Budget: 

Austin-Bergstrom International Airport Public Information staff worked approximately 55 hours on this singular effort, valued at $2,000.