Why the False Missile Alarms Should be Alarming for Business Travelers

For growing business travel programs, safety reigns supreme as a concern, even more than the success of the company. As a frequent traveler for business and leisure, there is always stress about venturing into the unknown and entering situations where you are vulnerable. Many business travelers take precautionary steps like printing copies of their passport, and storing extra cash in case of emergency. But the unprecedented incoming missile warning event in Hawaii on January 13, 2017 brings to light a whole new depth of concern for business travelers.

Missile Warning on My Plane

I didn’t sleep during the whole entire trip despite it being the last leg of a 26 hour flight itinerary from the Philippines going back home. I kept thinking I just nearly dodged a nuclear bullet, but I also frantically wondered if my friends in Hawaii would be safe. Would I even have friends left to contact when I arrived in San Francisco? Luckily, they did respond to texts immediately when I landed at SFO, telling me that it ended up being a false alarm, but for all of us there, it was a reality we never wanted to experience again.

Being annoyed that my 7:55AM flight from Honolulu to San Francisco didn’t leave exactly on time should’ve been the only thing I had to worry about the morning of January 13, 2017. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. Other passengers were trying to futilely stuff their baggages into the already full overhead bins, making us more late than we already were. Meanwhile, I casually browsed the apps on my phone savouring the last moments of data I had before the nearly 5 hour flight, and that’s when the alert popped up. In all capital letters, I was told there was an inbound missile coming straight at us and take shelter — but I couldn’t take shelter, I was in a plane. A few other passengers also received the alert and notified the flight attendants, but they didn’t seem concerned and the flight took off as soon as it was ready just a few minutes later.

Pandemonium in Hawaii

Feelings immediately shifted from fear to anger, a response that I apparently shared with the whole state of Hawaii, passengers like me stuck in limbo, and all our friends and family. Now that we were done thinking that our lives were just about to be over, we wanted answers. We wanted to know why and how such a grave mistake was allowed to put over 1.5 million people into a state of pandemonium.

And pandemonium was not an exaggeration. While I was up in the air, the virtually paralyzed citizens in Hawaii experienced 38 minutes of utter chaos. My friends later recounted to me how they were on campus and tried to find shelter at pre-designated spots, only to arrive there and see that the doors were locked. In the end, they took refuge in classrooms hoping against all hope that they would be at right.

Business Travelers Stuck in Limbo

However, students getting together right after the holidays to work on a group project is a different sort of scenario than those faced by business travelers, which accounted up to nearly 500,000 people traveling to the islands in 2016. For the business traveler, having to encounter a literal life-or-death situation in an environment you aren’t familiar with can understandably be a jarring experience, seeing as the one thing on your mind was trying to find more opportunities — not run into situations that effectively ended them. Luckily, this scenario was just a false alarm, but it could’ve gone so much more awry if it were real. For travel managers unsure about the scope of their duty to protect travelers on their team, we’ve discussed How to Command Your Company’s Duty of Care Overseas.

So, why did it happen?

The first given explanation by Hawaii governor David Ige was that an employee had supposedly pressed a wrong button during a shift change. Well, okay fair enough. Maybe he bumped into it or something. Then it begs the question — why do our national defense systems literally rely on the press of a single button? Of course, the obvious answer would be that the button needs to be easily accessible in the case of an actual emergency, but perhaps the button was too much within one’s reach.

The second explanation was that the poorly designed user interface of the software used to send out the alarm was confusing and unintuitive. So, now we’ve moved on from buttons being too easy to press to drop-down menus being too hard to navigate. Like the previous explanation that was given, it once again begs the question about why our defense systems are behind such ineffective systems. However, unlike before, it seems the case this time around was that the defense systems seem too hard to access properly rather than too easily, which is shown to be just as bad.

The most current explanation, as the investigation wraps up, is that the person responsible for sending out the false alarm mistook the impromptu practice drill as a real life scenario and sincerely believed that a missile was headed for Hawaii. In all cases, it seems that human error is ultimately to blame. These are the kinds of scenarios that fuel nightmares about a nuclear war starting over a little red button, and it is alarming to know that such a reality was extremely close to happening.

International Climate Impacts Business Travel

As part of the population that were caught the most unaware, business travelers now realize they must take precautions, no matter how painstaking and tedious they may be. While indeed time is money, and every second wasted for a business traveler is arguably more precious, now business travelers need to take into account the international political climate in which they do their business. The following is an advisory for those traveling to North Korea, but the warning unfortunately seems also applicable to traveling domestically, just like to Hawaii.

Parallel Incident in Japan

This incident was unfortunately not a one-off accident. Literally in the days following this event, the same thing happened in Japan. However, the incident in Japan can be considered comparatively worse, with the Japanese National Broadcast system (the NHK) sending the false alarm to the whole of the country. Yet, even so, the Japanese government was able to quickly rectify the situation comparatively better than the United States, by sending out the correction within 5 minutes after the original false alarm, whereas it took Hawaiian officials coordinating with the federal government nearly an hour to do the same.

Escalating Global Tensions

Amidst escalating tensions between the United States and North Korea, situations such as these false missile warnings show the glaring holes that plague our international security systems. Conducting business in such a volatile political climate obviously presents its challenges, and it does not seem like it is going to be easier anytime soon. The most sound advice anyone can recommend is just to be both travel and business smart during these times, as one cannot really seem to predict what can happen nowadays.

However, if you are looking for something that can at least predict your travel preferences and not succumb to human error, Claire can help with that. Although Claire can’t control our defense systems, she can at least make sure you have a travel itinerary you can count on and easily access without having to deal with annoying drop-down menus, and thankfully, while booking your next flight with Claire can be as easy as pushing a few buttons, you at least don’t run into the risk of accidentally sending a false missile alert to the whole country.

April Lat

April holds a Master’s in Public Policy and Human Development from the United Nations University and wrote her dissertation on Intellectual Property Policies for Artificial Intelligence. As a public policy consultant, she specializes in science, technology, innovation policy, and international affairs. Despite her namesake, she was not born in April.

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