Videos of this Sunday’s tragic crash landing of Aeroflot flight SU1492 raise troubling questions about passengers’ ability to think clearly during an emergency and act in the interest of their own survival.
As has happened in other recent evacuations, passengers ran from the aircraft carrying baggage. That’s despite industrywide cabin safety briefings warning that all bags should be left behind.
What’s different this time from the fires that led to the evacuations of British Airways flight 2276 in Las Vegas, American Airlines flight 383 in Chicago, and Emirates flight 521 in Dubai, during which passengers also stopped to collect bags, is the loss of life.
There are open questions on the response time of firefighters at Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport, which must also be addressed. But incidents of passengers rooting around for their bags amid an emergency evacuation are too common to dismiss off-hand.
Aeroflot said that the evacuation on Sunday only took 55 seconds, but a more accurate way to portray the situation is to say that passengers only had 55 seconds before the fire overtook them.
Perhaps it was impossible to evacuate all passengers from the plane in these conditions, in that time frame, but it seems likely that at least some of the 41 people who perished on the plane might have lived if all of the 37 survivors would just have run out empty handed.
A thorough accident investigation will reveal more, but it is possible that some passengers on SU1492 may have died because of blocked aisles.
Emergencies can bring out irrational behavior. For some, the drive to protect their possessions overrides any concern that they might have for their own safety or the safety of fellow passengers. This phenomenon has been worrying enough for an airline safety group to study the merits of installing auto-locking mechanisms on overhead bins, which would prevent passengers from reaching their bags in an emergency. One concern is that some passengers might waste more time fighting to break the bins open anyway.
As Geoffrey Thomas, Editor-in-Chief of Airline Ratings writes, if airlines and aircraft manufacturers had to account for how passengers behave during an evacuation and still meet the 90-second evacuation rule, they would need to reduce the aircraft cabin density by half. It is an unsustainable proposal. Of course, Thomas’ point is not that airlines should put far fewer people onboard, but that baggage-retrieval can significantly increase evacuation time.
It’s impossible to simulate real-life conditions, however, without putting trial participants at risk of serious injuries. That is why the aviation safety rules on the books must be informed by learnings from real accidents. At this point, there have been enough incidents to say that a certain number of people will reach for their bags regardless of instructions and despite apparent danger. They are unlikely to stop unless, of course, those bags were not there.
Airlines could carry all passenger baggage in the hold, with some adjustment to the room allocated for cargo and some restrictions on excess luggage. Passengers could still be allowed to travel in the cabin with a small bag that fits under the seat. If passengers stopped to pull out that small bag there might still be a delayed response to evacuation orders, but it would be a shorter delay and it would not involve blocking the aisles. It would also not pose as great a risk to the safe operation of the escape slides as the prospect of passengers jumping while carrying larger bags.
Airlines could change their baggage policies, allowing all passengers to check one bag free of charge. It would affect airline ancillary income—by some estimates, airlines made $28.1 billion in baggage fees last year—but it would still be better than reducing cabin occupancy by half. Requiring checked bags may also speed up the boarding process and likely improve aircraft on-time departures. So, besides the safety benefits, eliminating overhead bins could improve air travel.
While passengers prefer to carry bags with them, either to avoid hassle on arrival at the airport or because of concerns over lost luggage, the industry has been improving on baggage management. Stronger baggage tracking standards, backed by systems like Delta Air Lines’ RFID (radio frequency identification) tracking, are yielding positive results.
The 2019 Baggage IT Insights report from airline technology company SITA shows a rate of mishandled bags around 5.7 per thousand passengers over the past three years. Where better baggage tracking systems have been adopted at check-in and loading onto the aircraft, the reliability of baggage delivery has improved by as much as 66%. Introducing more bags into the system might result in an initial strain, but the foundation for better baggage management is already underway as airlines prepare for dramatic growth in passenger numbers.
While the industry has been focused on making overhead bins roomier, allowing more passengers to carry on their luggage, perhaps that is a move in the wrong direction. The reality is that aircraft overhead bins are not critical to operations. They are in the cabin for passenger convenience and passenger safety should always be the priority for aviation.
By Marisa Garcia, Contributor at Forbes.
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