September 9, 2015
NOT THIS AGAIN. Yet another incident with passengers taking their carry-on bags during an evacuation. This time it happened in Las Vegas, after a British Airways 777 caught fire during its takeoff roll.
I cannot overemphasize how appallingly unsafe this is. Luggage slows people down and severely impedes their access to the aisles and exits, and it turns the escape slides into a deadly slalom. This time it’s particularly striking, because while most evacuations are precautionary, this one was a full-blown emergency. The airplane was on fire. If that isn’t reason enough to leave your things and get the fuck off the plane as quickly as you can, then heaven help you.
Yet time and time again we see this. Flight attendants are yelling, “Leave your stuff!” but not everyone listens. People are digging through the bins for their computers and backpacks; here’s a guy coming up the aisle with a 35-pound roll-aboard. On YouTube you can find selfie videos from idiotic passengers who thought it was cool to film themselves going down the slide.
As noted, evacuations are usually precautionary: the plane isn’t on fire or about to explode; still, the crew isn’t fully certain of what it’s dealing with, and deems it best to get the passengers out of the cabin and away from the aircraft, just in case. Even then, however, this is not an invitation to take the situation lightly. Seconds count, and the goal is to get everybody out as fast as possible. What at first might seem an abundance of caution can quickly escalate. Seconds can mean the difference between life and death. Aboard British Airways flight 2276, the evacuation process may have seemed orderly and calm. How would things have unfolded, though, had a fuel tank exploded, or had the smoke and fire suddenly spread inside the plane? Now people are screaming. There’s a mad rush for the exits, but the aisle is clogged with suitcases dropped by panicked passengers. Your computer, your Kindle, your electric toothbrush, your underwear and your Sudoku books — all of those things can be replaced and aren’t worth risking your life over — not to mention the lives of the passengers behind you, who can’t get to the door because your 26-inch Tumi is in the way.
Equally egregious is taking a bag down one of the inflatable escape slides. You can’t always see it in videos or photos, but those slides are extremely steep. They are not designed with convenience — or fun — in mind. They are designed for no other purpose than to empty a plane of its occupants as rapidly as possible. You’ll be coming down from over two stories high in the case of a widebody jet, 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 going down the slides. This is expected. Add carry-ons to the mix and somebody is liable to be killed, smacked on the head by your suitcase or baby stroller.
It’s aggravating, because of all the gibberish that is crammed into the typical pre-flight safety demo, seldom is it mentioned that passengers need to leave their bags behind in the event of an evacuation. This should be a bold-print, bullet-point item in any briefing, emphasized clearly and loudly. Instead we get complicated instructions in the use of seat belts, as if there’s a person alive who doesn’t know how to use one, and all the other needless niceties, layered in airline jargon: “at this time,” “we do ask,” “sit back and relax,” etc. Nobody listens, and we hardly blame them.
Leave your things behind. It all will be returned to you later, no worse for wear. And if, in that rarest of rare cases, it winds up incinerated, well, you should be happy to have lost it. Lest it have been you in there.
As to the malfunction that caused the emergency in Vegas, it’s hard to know exactly what went wrong, but it appears that an uncontained engine failure touched off a fire. In other words, the left engine’s fan, compressors or turbines came apart. Fragments then burst through the protective nacelle and penetrated the fuselage and/or underside of the wing.
High-speed takeoff aborts are among the most hazardous maneuvers that exist. Luckily, this was a medium to low-speed abort. The jet was relatively early in its takeoff roll, at around a hundred miles-per-hour, when the engine failed and the fire erupted. The pilots promptly aborted the takeoff and shortly thereafter ordered an evacuation. Harrowing as things appear in the TV and online footage, this was a pretty straightforward scenario, and something the pilots had rehearsed many times in the simulator.
The abort itself would have gone something like this: At the first indication of the engine failure or loss of power, whichever pilot was at the controls — it could be the captain or the first officer — would have announced the likes of “Abort!” He next would have pulled the engines to idle and disconnected the autothrottles, maintaining control until the plane came to a stop. The other pilot would have lifted the reverse levers and made sure the wing spoilers had deployed. He’d also have assisted in keeping the airplane straight and made the appropriate callouts with respect to spoiler deployment, speed, etc. Wheel braking would’ve been taken care of automatically via the “RTO” (rejected takeoff) feature of the autobrakes. (Procedures vary carrier to carrier, but this is how British Airways does it. At some airlines, regardless of which pilot is initially at the controls, the captain takes over and performs the abort maneuver.) With only one engine producing reverse power, maintaining directional control may have been tougher than normal. The 777 has a system that automatically corrects for asymmetrical thrust, but I don’t know if it works in this scenario.
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 checklists, followed by an evacuation and shutdown checklist once they realized fire had spread to the fuselage. Somewhere in there, when time permitted, they announced to air traffic control that they’d discontinued the takeoff and were evacuating passengers on the runway.
From that point, things were mostly in the hands of the cabin crew. For all of the attention being lavished on “the pilot” (there were three pilots in the cockpit for this long-haul trip to London, a captain and two first officers), it was the flight attendants who faced the toughest challenge and who are owed the greatest thanks.
Many have wondered what might have happened if the same engine failure had occurred once the plane was aloft, rather than at the start of its takeoff roll. That’s something that can’t be answered. The dynamics would have been different in several ways, and it’s hard to say if there would have been a fire of the same kind, in the same place — or a fire at all — had the 777 been airborne.
Reportedly this was the captain’s second-to-last flight before his retirement (we’re reminded of the United captain whose 747 suffered a blown cargo door and an explosive decompression some years ago on his final flight). He has since told his bosses that this, instead, will have been his last day on the job. Whether he had a proud or nearly disastrous end to his career depends how you see it, I guess.
Traditionally, at the conclusion of a pilot’s final flight, airport fire trucks will drive out and spray the aircraft with water as a tribute. Done, and done, though I don’t think this was quite what he had in mind.
And lastly, because somebody is bound to ask about it… As heard in the exchanges between the BA crew and the Las Vegas tower controllers, the radio call-sign for British Airways is “Speedbird.” This was the nickname of an old corporate logo — a bird-like colophon worn by Imperial Airways and, later, BOAC, two of the predecessors of today’s British Airways.
In the London Times, Commentary From Patrick Smith on the British Airways Fire.
The London Times published the following story of mine about the Vegas incident. The article borrows from my original post, above.
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 maneuvers 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 maybe 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 behavior 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.
One possible and partial solution to the luggage issue was submitted by a reader in the comments section below: how about rigging the overhead bins with a locking system that prevents them from being opened during takeoff or landing? This function could be armed and disarmed similar to how it’s done with the door slides. The benefits of such a system are obvious. The downsides would be the possibility of malfunctions and the weight and cost of the hardware. Either way it’s an interesting idea.
And for a slightly different perspective, here are some comments from Christine Negroni, aviation safety journalist and author of the Flying Lessons blog:
Like you, I found myself shaking my head when I saw the videos or read reports of people taking their carry on luggage off the plane. Then I interviewed a passenger on Asiana 214 [the 2013 crash-landing of a 777 in San Francisco] who had done so and was surprised by his explanation. He told me that when the plane came to a stop and the evacuation began, he acted by habit in gathering his things and only afterward did he realize what he was doing. So I think we cannot discount the effect of altered state of consciousness as playing a role in this behavior. You may have read about this as a form of “negative panic.”
As a pilot, your perspective and ease in flying is not representative of the average passenger, even the average frequent flyer. You can imagine that being in command of the flight, you would be aware of the event as it developed and would therefore be prepared. For the passenger faced with an emergency landing, the time frame is much more compressed.
In another emergency evacuation about which I am writing for my newest book, the emergency landing of an All Nippon Airways 787 Dreamliner in Japan, one passenger told me that when they landed, it went so uneventfully that even though they were evacuating on the runway, he did not feel any sense of danger. It is a credit to how secure passengers feel in some evacuation scenarios that they do take the time to retrieve their things.
All of this is to say that what really needs to follow instances of passengers exiting the plane with their carry-ons is a study of why they do it. In fact, this is done. When I interviewed Boeing vis-a-vis the Asiana event, I was told their survival factors group does passenger surveys, and the NTSB does as well. What happens to this information after that is a legitimate question. Pushing safety authorities to examine this is more effective than bashing passengers for they way they behave in an unpredictable, unexpected and certainly frightening events.
Patrick responds: Passenger shock or panic is indeed an important factor, but if you ask me, this only emphasizes the need for better safety briefings and, maybe, changes to the way flight attendants are trained.