x

Embed

x

Tom Hanks stars as Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who safely landed his plane in the Hudson River, saving the lives of 155 crew and passengers.

The images eerily blur together. The latest appeared in August, this time with Emirates Flight 521 in Dubai. But they resembled British Airways Flight 2276 in Las Vegas and Delta Flight 1086 in New York, both in 2015. Ditto Asiana Flight 214 in San Francisco in 2013. And Cathay Pacific Flight 365 in Shanghai in 2011.

Those inexplicable photos of passengers fleeing for their lives from smoking and even burning aircraft — while clutching carry-ons and shoulder bags, or maneuvering wheelies down evacuation slides. Such behavior is breathtakingly bizarre, considering that surviving some types of airline accidents has become statistically more common, as the new film Sully makes apparent. In fact, in an exhaustive study of domestic airline accidents over 17 years, the NTSB found 95.7% of occupants survived.

But what a hollow victory that so many spectacular aeronautical advancements have reduced deaths due to impact and smoke inhalation and fire — yet you still may succumb anyway, because your seatmate is struggling to retrieve a laptop.

Difficulty understanding

Over the years I’ve written extensively about airline safety, including best practices for how to enhance your personal safety margins, as well as properly securing infants. But amid all the hotly contested comments, I can’t ever recall a human factors equation defying all logic. Some have suggested these incidents are due to language or cultural barriers, but they’re occurring everywhere.

It’s best summed up by Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA: “Passengers stopping to grab their bags during an evacuation can be a matter of life and death for themselves and others around them. Flight attendants are trained to evacuate a plane in 90 seconds or less. Every second counts.”

Recently I ranted about wheelie-dragging survivors to a close friend and was stunned by the response: “You’re making too much of it. It only takes A FEW SECONDS to get your carry-on. What’s the big deal?” And that’s when it hit me. Otherwise intelligent, sensible folks offer the “few seconds” argument without fully understanding just how precious such seconds are.

Make no mistake: In aviation, life and death come down to nanoseconds. I spent months researching accident survival for my book Attention All Passengers, and discussed it in-depth with experts at the NTSB in Washington and Boeing in Seattle.

Boeing employs a three-pronged approach to saving lives: surviving accidents, surviving post-crash fires, and safely evacuating. The most significant technological improvements over time may not seem momentous, but in this life-and-death struggle for that precious 90-second benchmark, such milestones include:

• “low heat and smoke release” cabin materials

• fire-resistant seat cushions

• improved cabin insulation

• floor path emergency lighting

Technology has become predictable. Human behavior? That’s another matter.

Human factors

The carry-on conundrum is not a new phenomenon. Back in 2000, the National Transportation Safety Board released a Safety Study that examined 46 real-world evacuations over two years. It cited what 24 of 36 flight attendants found: “Passengers exiting with carry-on baggage were the most frequently cited obstruction to evacuation.”

These real-world events included passengers evacuating with guitars, crutches and cases, as well as numerous accounts of heated arguments with flight attendants, blocked exits and minor injuries. Testimony included “waiting behind a passenger trying to maneuver a garment bag through an overwing exit.”

Several significant factors have greatly exacerbated such problems:

• The percentage of carry-on versus checked bags has soared since the widespread introduction of baggage fees in the late 2000s

• Domestic airline cabins have become much fuller, with average load factors increasing from 72.4% in 2000 to 83.8% last year, while industry seat pitch became tighter

• Electronic device usage has skyrocketed; a 2015 Pew Research Center study found 68% of U.S. adults carry smartphones and 45% carry tablets

Blocking a row or aisle to collect belongings also can foment panic, which can be deadly during emergencies. Furthermore, each exit has been tested for a maximum number of passengers, but this assumes EVERY exit is properly working and not blocked; a decade ago the NTSB found slides failed in one-third of evacuations. And in 2005 Flight Safety Foundation reported the fatality rate with slide problems is 1.7 times higher than without such problems.

There’s another overlooked factor: the danger in sending projectiles down a slide, potentially injuring others and/or damaging the slide itself. While working for airlines, I underwent egress training because I rode in cockpit jumpseats on charter and military flights; I recall a colleague breaking her ankle descending the slide. Consider that — a trained airline employee, supervised by safety experts, was still injured under the best of conditions. Yet some choose to descend in smoke, fire and adverse weather clutching a 50-pound bag?

Research cites passengers retrieving items like wallets and medication when evacuating; it’s understandable, but hardly worth human lives. When I researched aerophobia I learned fear causes time to slow down for some passengers, so I contacted an expert, Dr. Mitchell Schare, director of the Phobia & Trauma Clinic at Hofstra University. He rejected this as a likely cause, and instead cited the “Beverly Hills Supper Club” syndrome, when people took cues from others and remained seated during a raging fire. Schare stated: “If the person next to you thinks it’s important to get their carry-on, then maybe you should. Before you know it, everybody’s engaging in the same foolish behavior.”

Seeking solutions

The NTSB found carry-ons were a “serious risk” and in 2000 recommended the Federal Aviation Administration “should develop advisory material to address ways to minimize the problems associated with carry-on luggage during evacuations.” Since then, this problem has grown worse, and aviation experts and airline blogs are weighing in with potential solutions, including:

• Briefing cards. The NTSB found many (but not all) U.S. carriers recommend leaving behind personal items on safety briefing cards. But how many passengers actually review such cards?

• Oral briefings. During safety briefings, some domestic carriers include warnings about leaving belongings, and some don’t. I asked the FAA for clarification and received this statement: “It is standard industry practice for U.S. airlines to use the pre-flight safety briefing to tell passengers to leave baggage and personal belongings behind during an evacuation.” But “standard industry practice” isn’t a regulation. As for flight attendant training, best practices recommend crews command passengers, “Leave everything!” But for many passengers, this is their first warning about abandoning items — and it comes at the worst possible time. Interestingly, Schare believes there’s sound psychological benefit in improving safety briefings: “People need ‘leaders’ to [advise them] during a crisis … passengers should be told this philosophy.”

• Penalizing passengers. The NTSB found flight attendant training doesn’t address “when passengers do not follow the command to leave everything behind.” AFA-CWA’s Nelson suggests, “Enforcement of fines associated with failing to comply with crewmember instructions may cause people to think twice.” Such enforcement would come from the FAA; if you search its site, you’ll find the agency does offer this advice: “If an emergency evacuation is necessary, leave your carry-on items on the plane. Retrieving personal items may impede the safe evacuation of passengers.” The FAA told me: “We expect passengers to pay attention to the safety briefing and follow their crew’s instructions to safely and quickly evacuate.” As for penalizing passengers, the FAA responded: “We have not fined anyone for taking bags with them in an emergency.”

• Locking bins. Some believe crewmembers should automatically lock overhead bins upon activation of either seat belt or emergency floor path lighting. John Goglia, a former board member of the NTSB, recently wrote about this and warned of unintended consequences, particularly if a fire source is a computer or cellphone INSIDE a bin. Others note emergency equipment is sometimes stored in bins. And there’s little doubt the airlines will raise another factor — the potential costs of installing locks. That said, the FAA advised me: “We have no plans to lock the overhead.”

Remember …

The NTSB estimates evacuations occur on U.S. aircraft once every 11 days on average. Until the FAA and airlines find solutions, you’ll need to protect yourself and loved ones. Consider the following:

• Pay attention during the safety briefing (yes, even platinum frequent fliers). You HAVEN’T heard it all before, since you probably haven’t sat in that identical seat before, so your egress path is different. And count the rows to your nearest exit (there may be darkness or smoke).

• Avoid shoes that fall off easily (flip-flops) and heels that are too high or spikey. Wear cotton or wool.

• Stay buckled up, especially when instructed. Keep a clear path to the aisle.

• The International Air Transport Association offers specific advice for evacuating with infants.

• ALWAYS — follow all instructions from crewmembers!

Survivability is far from certain if human error hinders safe egress. So one thing is certain. Until common sense becomes more common, you’d better hope such passengers aren’t seated next to an emergency exit.

Bill McGee, a contributing editor to Consumer Reports and the former editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, is an FAA-licensed aircraft dispatcher who worked in airline operations and management for several years. Tell him what you think of his latest column by sending him an email at travel@usatoday.com. Include your name, hometown and daytime phone number, and he may use your feedback in a future column.