Deadly Consequences of Passenger Behavior on Display in Aeroflot Evacuation

May 6, 2019 / 3 Comments

Air travelers lingering to retrieve bags during an emergency evacuation may very well be responsible for the deaths of 41 people in the fiery crash of an Aeroflot jetliner in Moscow on Sunday. More than half of those onboard the Sukhoi Superjet were unable to escape the burning airplane – raising the possibility that the deaths were due to evacuation delays.

In addition to determining what happened to trigger the power loss that prompted the pilots to return to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport shortly after taking off, airlines, airplane manufacturers, flight crews and yes, air travelers must examine the role of passenger behavior.

Because everyone has a camera these days, news of the disaster rocketed around the world – providing a view from before and after the plane slammed repeatedly on the runway. Another, frightening video, taken onboard the flight shows the blaze on the right side of the aircraft and the panicked voices of travelers who were aware of the peril.

And yet despite the evident seriousness of their plight, one can see those who evacuated on the two front emergency slides walking across a field from a tower of billowing smoke with suitcases in hand. It should come as no surprise because it is not the first accident in which travelers have done this as Ben Graham explains in a comprehensive article this morning in

Following the crash of Asiana Flight 214 in 2013, I interviewed a traveler who had pulled his bag from the bin prior to leaving the Boeing 777 that landed short of the runway in San Francisco.  The passenger in seat 17-C explained that the bag was in his hand before he realized what he was doing. It was more an act of habit than the result of decision making, he told me. And yet, he added that he could not move up the aisle because passengers ahead of him were stopped and gathering their things.

“If I didn’t waste time gathering my carry on, I could have evacuated faster. However, I could not have evacuated faster because I got my carry on before my brain started working rationally. I imagine this is true for other passengers,” he told me.


Human factors specialists know that in high-stress circumstances, passengers take their lead from others. If those closest to the exits stop to retrieve bags the behavior sets an example for those farther back. Held up and waiting they use the time to collect their own things.

“The passenger grabbing their bags has been such a problem for so long,” Candace Kolander, the Air Safety, Health and Security Coordinator for the Association of Flight Attendants told me at the time.   “We say ‘leave everything behind, leave everything behind’ but how as an industry can we change human nature?”

The short answer is that human nature cannot be changed. But humans can learn to appreciate the consequences of their actions, especially in light of the death toll on Sunday. It falls to airlines to make sure their pre-flight briefings explain not just what to do and not do, but why. And it falls to passengers to recognize they have a role in safety, not just their own but their fellow passengers too.

Some of the delays must be attributed to the “device effect”. People want their devices at hand and certainly so in harrowing events. This is our reality for good and for bad.

While some passengers in the video are fleeing with bags, others remain close to the burning plane. Firefighters blast horns to prompt survivors to move out of the way. They may be waiting for fellow travelers, they may be documenting the event.

It prompts an examination of the relationship between the desire to have one’s device close at hand and the persistent problem of travelers retrieving luggage during emergency evacuations.

Finally, airplane manufacturer evacuation tests will be of limited value until they recognize and address the chasm between hangar simulations with passengers who know what to expect and real-life events like Aeroflot complete with all the complicated behaviors that define humanity.

Air travelers are unwittingly putting lives at risk. What will be done to fix this problem? My fellow passengers, this question includes you.


Categories: Flying Lessons
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3 responses to “Deadly Consequences of Passenger Behavior on Display in Aeroflot Evacuation”

  1. Phil says:

    I am infuriated by this behaviour, but also understand how in a stressful situation, we fall back on habit.
    Some years ago I was involved in a life or death situation with a workmate. I am told I performed well, up until I guided the ambulance out into traffic, and watched it drive away. The I passed out in the middle of the road.
    I woke up 20 minutes later on the lunch-room table where I had been carried.
    I have few recollections of that time.
    We all behave differently

  2. Kevin Humphreys says:

    This unfortunately not new great work was done after British Airways in Manchester in evacuation tests when the volunteers in a trial were incentiveised by even a small monetary reward the trials were cancelled due to bad behavior a researcher received a knighthood ie Dame for her work on passenger evacuation Authorities and Airlines need to emphasize evacuation Helen

  3. azure says:

    I don’t know what the seating arrangement was like on the Russian airline plane, but I seem to recall your doing a post on how there’s been no study on how much the ever smaller seats & leg room on US commercial airlines affects the ability of passengers to evaluate or how speedily they can evacuate.

    Maybe it’s time to do some experiments on which is a more severe handicap to speed of airplane evacuation, stopping to grab a handbag or designing seating arrangements & aisles that make it harder and harder for passengers to get into & out of their seats/rows & move swiftly down the aisles. It’s a major risk for US airlines to make that choice given the increased in age of passengers plus increased weight of many of them. But somehow, no one’s seeing that as a failure of planning for safe evacuation by commercial airlines.

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