If there is one lesson to learn from the BA plane which caught on fire last week, it is that the inflight safety briefing needs to be made more interesting. Much more interesting.
The runway fire involving a British Airways 777 last week in Las Vegas brought out the best and worst of those who were there. Taking the latter first, maybe the most disturbing thing revealed by photographs and video footage is the number of passengers who took their carry-on bags with them during the evacuation.
It can’t be overemphasized how reckless this was.
It was particularly striking in this instance, because while most evacuations are precautionary and may lack a sense of urgency, this one was a full-blown emergency. The airplane was on fire.
Luggage slows down an evacuation and impedes access to the aisles and exits – at a time when seconds can mean the difference between life and death. On board flight 2276, the process may have seemed orderly and calm. How would things have unfolded, though, had a fuel tank exploded, or had the smoke and fire spread inside the plane? Now, suddenly, people are screaming and panicking. There’s a mad rush for the exits, but the aisle is clogged with suitcases. Your belongings can be replaced, and aren’t worth risking your life over — to say nothing of the lives of those behind you.
Equally egregious is taking a bag down one of the emergency slides. You can’t always tell from photos, but those slides are extremely steep. They are not designed for convenience; they are designed to empty a plane of its occupants as rapidly as possible. You’ll be coming down from two stories high in the case of a 777, at a very rapid clip, with others doing the same in front of you and right behind you.
Even without bags people are often injured using the slides. Add luggage to the mix and somebody is liable to be killed. And, troublingly, this is something we’ve seen on other recent evacuations as well.
Cabin crews are trained to instruct passengers to leave their things behind. The problem is, not everybody listens. Perhaps the most valuable takeaway from this accident is the need for clearer and more direct language in the pre- flight safety demonstration. As they exist today, the demos are tedious and crammed with the equivalent of legal fine print. Nobody pays attention, and we can hardly blame them. These presentations should be shorter and more concise, and among the bullet-points should be the instruction to leave your belongings should the need arise to evacuate.
The BA crewmembers, for their part, appear to have performed admirably. This was a textbook example of what an aviation academic would call “crew resource management” – a proverbial team effort between the cockpit and cabin crew, for which everybody should be grateful. For the pilots, this was something they’d rehearsed many times in the simulator.
Despite how harrowing the footage appears on TV, it was a pretty straightforward scenario – and one that could have been a lot worse. High-speed runway aborts are among the most hazardous manoeuvres that exist. This, however, was a low to medium-speed abort. The jet was relatively early in its takeoff roll, and got no faster than about a hundred miles-per-hour.
The abort itself would have gone like this: at the first indication of the engine failure, the pilot at the controls – in this case it was the captain, though it could have been either the captain or the first officer, depending whose turn it was to fly – would have announced the likes of “Abort!” He next would have pulled the thrust levers to idle, disconnected the autothrottles and maintained control until the plane was stopped. The other pilot would have lifted the reverse levers and made sure the wing spoilers were deployed. He’d have further assisted in keeping the plane straight and made any appropriate callouts.
Once the plane had shuddered to a stop, the pilots would have run through the necessary checklists. Presumably, in this case, that meant the engine failure or engine fire checklist, followed by an evacuation checklist once they understood that fire had spread to the fuselage. Once the plane had shuddered to a stop, things were mainly in the hands of the cabin crew.
For all of the attention being lavished on “the pilot” (in fact three pilots were in the cockpit for this flight to London, a captain and two first officers), it was the cabin attendants who faced the toughest challenge and who deserve the loudest round of applause.
This was, you could say, an incident of extremes.
On the one hand, it was the nervous passenger’s worst nightmare come to life. All the statistics in the world can’t conceal what a terrifying example this was of everything that can and sometimes does go wrong. Absolute safety is impossible; the occasional accident will still occur, and some of them will be deadly.
On the other hand, and perhaps a bit ironically, it underscores all that is safe and reliable about modern-day commercial aviation. On the runway in Las Vegas, despite a fast-spreading fire and the ill-advised behaviour of certain passengers, not a life was lost. Such an outcome serves as a testament not only to the professionalism of the onboard staff, but also, in a broader sense, to the decades-long evolution in the way air crews are trained.
The media’s habitual fixation on even minor mishaps may lead one to think otherwise, but in truth, flying has become a lot safer than it used to be. Gone are the days when ten or more large-scale catastrophes were the norm in any given year. Better training, together with vast improvements in aircraft technology and more potent regulatory oversight has brought us to an age in which major crashes happen far less frequently than they once did.