Passengers Risk Lives Grabbing Luggage as Planes Burn

By | August 8, 2016

If your flight has an emergency and you’re told to evacuate, be certain that at least two things will happen. You’ll experience the adrenaline rush of a lifetime, for one. But you’ll also hear the urgent commands of flight attendants telling you to leave your bags behind. Yes, all of them. Laptops and purses, too.

Maybe the adrenaline is causing temporary deafness. Materialism has been winning out over self-preservation as air travelers often ignore the order to drop everything, a fact illustrated in recent years by laden passengers fleeing a burning 777 in San Francisco or a Delta Air Lines Inc. jet that skidded off a snowy New York runway. The latest example came on Wednesday, when an Emirates Airline flight crashed on landing in Dubai, followed by a severe fire that consumed much of the Boeing 777-300. Video showed some travelers collecting luggage before they escaped. All 282 passengers and 18 crew survived, but an airport firefighter died while battling the blaze.

The scramble for luggage makes flight attendants, pilots, and safety experts apoplectic. What many passengers fail to realize is that pausing to pull out a bag endangers not only them, but everyone behind them. U.S. regulators require that aircraft be evacuated in 90 seconds in an emergency, a standard that’s taken hold across most of the globe. Some airlines have also incorporated the notice about discarding belongings into the preflight safety briefing passengers receive.

This aerial photo shows the wreckage of the Asiana Flight 214 airplane after it crashed at the San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, Saturday, July 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
This aerial photo shows the wreckage of the Asiana Flight 214 airplane after it crashed at the San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, Saturday, July 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Yet, despite the shock from a crash or skid or cabin smoke and the looming potential for fire, bags remain a powerful lure, seen by some as too precious to leave.

“Flight attendants have said they have had to physically grab bags from people and throw them into the galley to get them away from the evacuation,” said Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. “There’s a lot of problems with those bags.”

One of the most dangerous arises from bottlenecks that occur while flight attendants manage “flow control.” This includes helping passengers jump into the emergency slide correctly, said Michael Massoni, operational safety chairperson for the Transport Workers Union Local 556 and a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines Co. “There’s all kinds of potential for nonsense if there are a lot of bags.”

In the worst scenarios, some of that nonsense can end with injury or death.

Putting more bags into cargo holds could lessen the problem, but airlines want to decrease the load of each plane to save on fuel, and passengers don’t want to pay those fees or leave things at home. It turns out that, for both passengers and airlines, when it’s your money or your life, money wins.

Is there a regulatory fix? Fines or prosecution of crash survivors? Overhead bins the crew can lock if an emergency is declared? Any potential remedy comes with an array of potential problems, from costs, to legal issues, to operational glitches. Some bins, for example, hold items a flight attendant might need in an emergency.

The possibility of a huge fine “would stick in their mind” and cause passengers to leave their bags as directed, Nelson said. Yet flyers may simply assume those rules are unenforceable unless busy emergency personnel on the ground helped enforce them. “In the chaos of an evacuation, where you’re trying to get everyone off an airplane in 90 seconds, you’re going to have a hard time identifying who had the briefcase, who had the big bag, and they didn’t follow my order,” Massoni said.

A study on emergency evacuations in 2000 by the National Transportation Safety Board found that almost 50 percent of people in an evacuation had tried to take a bag. The report examined 46 aircraft evacuations and included surveys of passengers and flight attendants on those flights. Two-thirds of the 36 flight attendants who responded said that carry-on bags were an obstruction during the evacuation. The main reasons passengers gave for grabbing their bags was money, wallets, or credit cards, followed by work materials, keys and medication.

“Although not everyone attempts to retrieve and take carry-on baggage during an evacuation, everyone in the airplane could potentially be affected by these attempts,” the study noted.

To date, the Federal Aviation Administration has not pursued civil penalties against anyone who has taken luggage during an evacuation in violation of crew instructions. “I think we could pursue a penalty if failure to obey a crew member’s instruction resulted in a significant safety issue—such as blocking an exit so other passengers could not get out in a timely way,” FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said in an e-mail.

Nelson, the flight attendants association chief, is a 20-year veteran who works at United Continental Holdings Inc. She likens the bag-evacuation issue to smoking on an aircraft, which the FAA banned in 1990. Without stiff sanctions, people will continue to grab bags despite flight attendants’ entreaties. Today, both smoking on board and tampering with aircraft smoke detectors invite federal prosecution and steep fines.

“Smoking is not allowed because it can jeopardize the lives and the health of other passengers and the lives and health of the crew,” she said. “And carrying your bag could have the same consequence.”

Topics Aviation

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