Friday, February 15, 2019

Emergency Evacuations In Planes - Some Thoughts and Recommendations

We've been in the exit row on a lot of flights.  These rows have a lot more leg room but you have to agree that you are able to follow the procedures to open the emergency exit on the window.  But the instructions available are very detailed.  Here's what you get:

Specifically the lower part - Emergency overwing exits.  This is pretty vague.

The flight attendant has to get everyone in the two rows to say 'yes' out loud, affirming that they can and will perform the emergency procedures.  But it's really not clear what that means.  The person at the window has to open it.  But what are the others supposed to do?  What happens when you get the emergency door open?  You're out on the wing.  How do you get off?  It's kind of high off the ground.

These are questions I've had, so I've looked around on line.  Here's what I've found:
  1. Finding videos for what you - as a passenger - are supposed to do, is difficult.  I have some videos below that you can see, but they don't really help much.
  2. An old study says that the more people are prepared, the better they respond. 
  3. Crew gets lots of training.
I was beginning to think that the airlines didn't take this passenger exit row thing too seriously.  That they aren't expecting people to have to use the emergency exits.  

But I looked up how many emergency landings there were.  As a percentage of flights, it's rare, but as the list of emergency landings of commercial planes in the US 2018 below shows, there were 201 emergency landings listed for the US in 2018.  That's almost two every three days.  

( I copied the list so I could  sort it and look closer.  There were several events that were listed as in the US but weren't - from UK, Ireland, Scotland, India.  I got rid of those to get to my total.       And since there were some non-US incidents listed here, there could well be some US incidents listed elsewhere by mistake.)

The category this website allowed me to search for was:
  •  Emergency, Forced Landing, Diversion - Commercial
That doesn't mean all, or even most were landings that involved emergency evacuations from the plane.  Some (many?) involved passenger illness or drunkeness or other disruptive behavior which probably wouldn't require emergency evacuations.   Here's the list by state.  You can see the details at the original site linked above.  You have to fill in the parameters yourself.   I've highlighted Alaska Airlines simply because that's the airline I'm on the most.  I've also highlighted the five states with the most emergency landings in red.  Except for North Carolina (#9 in population), they are the highest population states.

Alaska 5

Arizona 4


California138/12  Alaska Airlines

Connecticut 3





Hawaii34/27 Alaska Airlines















New Jersey3

New Mexico5Alaska  6/11
New York14

North Carolina13

North Dakota3



Oregon2Horizon 4/28
Pennsylvania6Alaska 5/15
Rhode Island2

South Carolina4






West Virgina3


Here are a few of the articles I've found on this topic:

Plane Exit Row Seating is a  Responsibility  - This is written by "John J. Nance, ABC News' aviation analyst, is a veteran 13,000-flight-hour airline captain, a former U.S. Air Force pilot and a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserves."  He recommends training and certifying passengers on how to open the emergency doors and giving them priority to these seats with extra leg room .  It begins:
"Of course I can open that hatch if needed!"
It's the battle cry of the long-legged coach passenger who's figured out that even a middle seat in the emergency exit row of most single-aisle airliners has as much leg room as first class. There are even small turf battles among the highest-level members of different frequent-flier plans as they try to jockey for priority seating in the emergency exit row. And experienced travelers know how to sidle up to the agent at the departure gate and request to be one of the defenders of passenger safety, in the unlikely event of an emergency evacuation.
Because that's exactly what you're asking for when you accept or request an exit row seat: The responsibility to move fast and efficiently to open the hatch in the it-almost-never-happens-but-could event that your jetliner has slid to a stop on the ground and the flight attendants relay an order to get out of the airplane fast.
That moment -- as utterly rare as it is these days -- is not the time for realizing your shoulder won't handle 40 to 50 pounds of unhinged door."

Susannah Fox's personal experience of an emergency exit:  This is her first hand account of having to evacuate a plane which hadn't yet taken off.  An engine had caught fire.  Here's an short excerptt:
"A line from the safety demonstration popped into my head like a snippet of an old song: “the closest exit may be behind you.” That was true in my case, but there was a bottleneck. People were refusing to go down the slide. I craned my neck and saw that some of the people hesitating at the back of the plane were older adults who were understandably afraid of hurting themselves. I could hear the flight attendants cajoling them, telling them that we had no choice: The only way out was down the slide. Their voices grew increasingly sharp as the time ticked by."

Many Passengers In Exit Seats Benefit From Extra Briefings - From the Cabin Crew Safety study. This 2001 publication reviews procedures and studies from different airlines and countries.  They don't really make recommendations, but from one study it says that the more instructions passengers get, the better prepared they are.  Not really surprising.

I had trouble finding good videos, but today, as I'm about to post this I looked again and others popped up.  This first one shows how to open the exit row emergency door and what to do after.  But it's a nine minute video and 'nothing happens' until 6 minutes in.  It's mostly talking - not useless info, but this is not the kind of video that will teach people quickly what to do.

Wall Street Journal Video about evacuations:  This is a passengers video from his phone as he evacuated.

Baltic Air Training Video - it starts with talk, but then demonstrates how to open the door and how to use the safety strap on the wing.

Here's an ancient (1960sh)Western Airlines training video for evacuating a 737  Despite its age, this was the one that gave the most practical visuals of what happens.

Training Video for Chinese - a little odd.  In one scene smoke comes out and the passengers sit there until they disappear in the smoke.  This seems to be intended for crew.

On a February 9 flight from Seattle to San Francisco we were once again in the exit row.  The flight attendant perfunctorily asked each of us if we could and would carry out exit row responsibilities.  She had to ask one person to say it out loud.  Then at the other end of the row she asked a person I couldn't see several times until she said 'yes.'

Later, another flight attendant came by with the drinks tray and to take food orders.  The person at the other end wasn't answering her questions.  The flight attendant realized she didn't understand English and said she had to move to another seat.  And sitting behind her was one more person in her party who didn't understand English.  I complimented the flight attendant, Sherry, for doing her job and told her I was working on this post.  I told her the emergency info they hand out are just pictures and not particularly clear.  She answered some of my questions:

  • When you pull down the handle in these planes, the window automatically pulls itself up and out of the way.  
  • That the back wing flaps lower so it's not so far up off the ground.  (I said that it looked pretty high from the wing to the ground  - were we supposed to just jump?)  She added that when you open the emergency door, a rope comes out that people can use to sort of rappel down to the ground.  (Or is this just the rope that gets tied to the wing to hold on to on the wing?)
  • She also said our job was to get the emergency door opened and go on the wing, then crew will help people get down.  
  • They get lots of training on this.  

After rereading all this, here are my recommendations.
  1. Alaska Airlines (or Boeing or Airbus) should make an emergency training video for passengers that shows exactly what someone like me, sitting next to the emergency exit window, would do in an emergency - opening the window, getting on the wing, how the rope works, what the others in the exit row do, what the crew's role is, etc.
    1. This can be available:
      1. in the inflight video entertainment package
      2. in the terminals
      3. on the Alaska Airlines website (and all other airlines of course)
  2. Put emergency exit windows in the terminals where people could try them out.  If this is too costly, then videos showing how they work.
  3. Airlines allow passengers to get the same kind of training that flight crew get for emergencies
    1. Then, exit row seating would only be available to people who had taken the training and been certified.  Because exit rows have lots more leg room, this would be a bonus for many.
    2. I'm guessing many people would pay a reasonable fee for this training if it meant priority seating in exit rows.
I realize that airlines don't want to alarm passengers by showing them videos of people having to evacuate a plane.  The Jaws effect, if you will.  For example, Alaska Airlines asked a non-profit they were sponsoring, to change the name of an event from "Turbulent" to "Tail Winds."  
"Alaska Airlines, an event sponsor, suggested the change at the last minute because of turbulence’s negative connection to air travel."
So they are clearly sensitive to these issues.  

But if kids can do lock down drills in schools, airline passengers can watch videos that show them how to get out of the plane quickly and safely in an emergency.

The February 2019 Inflight Magazine on Alaska Airlines has an article saying that Alaska has been rated as one of the 20 safest airlines in the world.  The article quotes Max Tidwell, Alaska's VP for Safety as saying:
"Safety is our top priority and is firmly ingrained in our culture, as we are personally committed to the safety of our guests and one another."
I'm hoping he will pay attention to the issues I'm raising here and consider implementing the recommendations that I'm borrowing from people with greater expertise than mine.

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