How to Save an Airline Passenger’s Ass in Mexico, Ibiza and Elsewhere

August 1, 2018 / 2 Comments

Much praise goes to the crew of AeroMexico Flight 2431 and rescue workers who arrived on the scene of the accident in Durango on Tuesday. Passengers said a fire quickly engulfed the Embraer 190 after it overran the runway, still on airport property, not far from a radar array.

But there are many in the industry whose hard work goes unseen and yet they are directly responsible for making accidents like this survivable. If AeroMexico Flight 2431 has any impact, I hope it will be to show the world’s air travelers the infrastructure that supports safety and that even passengers have a role to play.

The same day that 98 panicked passengers and four crew members fled the volatile wreckage of Flight 2431, another planeload of travelers on a Ryanair flight destined for Ibiza were jumping onto an emergency slide at the airport in Barcelona after a mobile phone caught fire and the pilots aborted takeoff.

We see passengers with backpacks and purses slamming into the pile-up of those who have gone before them on the slide. This is a something I’ve seen before in YouTube videos of emergency evacuations. Travelers have either not heard or ignored the safety briefing in which they are told to leave their possessions on board the plane.

According to the National Transportation Safety board, the vast majority of airplane accidents are survivable, though that was not always the case. Disasters followed by investigations have exposed previously unappreciated hazards. After that came the design improvements and enhanced safety procedures that make flying as safe as it is today.

Air travelers may rate seats based on comfort or preference for window or aisle, but the most important features when it comes to how well travelers are protected “in the unlikely event” are:

  • How well the seat protects a passenger’s head, spine and limbs
  • How the belt confines the traveler within a protective space,
  • Whether the seat remains in its position
  • How well the fabrics and cabin materials resist burning and smoke

When you take into account the demands for safety paired with commercial demands for lighter, cheaper and smaller seats, airplane seat designers might as well be rocket scientists. Considering how many times I fly each year, people like Japan’s Yoshi Ozawa, a crash test dummy engineer, are my personal rock stars.


Still, as I reported for The New York Times a few years ago, the increase in average passenger weight in many parts of the world, throws some of the safety gains into question, as engineers like Ozawa wonder if seats today are strong enough to protect heavy passengers and those who are seated by them.  And in the U.S., lawmakers are considering whether increasingly crowded passenger cabins make timely evacuation more difficult.

The third wild card threatening survivability is passenger behavior.

We know travelers don’t wear their seat belts all the time as they should, or even in some cases, on take-off and landing. In the remarkable case of Asiana Flight 214 which landed short of the runway in San Francisco in 2014, two of the three fatalities out of 307 on board, were due to the girls being tossed from the aircraft because they were not restrained.

Former NTSB survival factors specialist Nora Marshall told me once,”Seatbelt usage is one of the most important things to protect an occupant.”

Surviving impact is just one factor to consider. “You are going to have to escape quickly if there’s fire.” she told me. Tuesday’s mishaps in Durango and Ibiza prove her right.

The flight attendants can get the doors open, deploy the slides, issue commands but passengers have their own responsibilities to listen to and heed the safety briefing and worry less about themselves and more about the good of the temporary community in the sky of which they ought to be a contributing member.

We may be living in a time of skepticism, but an increasingly lengthy list of catastrophes mitigated by enhanced airplane cabins is proof that when it comes to safety, everyone from the seat designers to the owners of the derrière perched on them has a part to play.

And if passengers want to save their butts, they must not act like asses.

This post has been changed to reflect that the Ryanair emergency evacuation took place in Barcelona on a flight headed to Ibiza, not in Ibiza. 


Categories: Flying Lessons
Tags: , , , , , ,

2 responses to “How to Save an Airline Passenger’s Ass in Mexico, Ibiza and Elsewhere”

  1. Roger says:

    I do think much of the commentary against these passengers is unfair, at least to some of them. I’ve yet to find an article about what actually happens to passengers after a crash – not the next hour, but what happens over the next days, weeks and months. (I’m hoping a journalist will write a good article about it, since it is such a mystery.)

    The reason why I think it is unfair (to some) is because of shock (the medical condition). Many times non-rational behaviour is mentioned about passengers in a crash, sometimes resulting in their death. Once you encounter someone in shock, it is very clear that thinking is different (and strange).

    But lets look at the lead up to being a passenger in a crash. You book tickets in a somewhat adversarial relationship to the airline. You are trying to get an appropriate ride for your budget, and they are providing a wide array of choices, add-ons, and it can feel deceptive.

    Then you have to ensure you have everything with you, and get to the airport on time. Identification, documents, personal necessities, and stuff all need to be with you. Then at the airport there are constant announcements of keeping your stuff with you at all times. You are subjected to a security screening that is various degrees of dehumanizing, and you have to accept it all. Even a simple joke remark could have very serious consequences.

    Then you have to make it to the gate on time, and must keep ensuring you have all your stuff with you at all times. The boarding process is also congested and stressful for some. Heck most airlines let you pay more money in advance to make that a more pleasant experience, and some do pay!

    Then you stay in your seat, sometimes queuing for the lav, and being very aware of just how many people are around you. When you arrive at your destination, there is the deplaning, and again make sure all your stuff is with you.

    That is all repeated each time you fly. You don’t really feel the airline, security, other passengers etc are on your side. Then you are in a crash. Maybe you are in shock. It is very easy to see behaviour reverting to the norm – drag your stuff out. And for those not in shock, it is a hard calculation but I can see why people do it (I’m not agreeing, just understanding). If I was in a crash and lost all the stuff I brought with me, it would cost many thousands of dollars and a considerable amount of time to replace government ids, my own equipment, baggage, adjusting journeys and bookings etc.

    My suggestion for a fix is to move the safety briefing to the airport. Why should the first time I try to put on a mask or open a door be during an accident? It would be far better to become familiar with it in a more relaxed setting, far easier to see how evacuations work, and I believe generally far more reassuring. And I’ll wager far more likely to be remembered and acted upon when in shock. The existing approach of some tedious video shown is obviously not working, for anyone.

    As for what I’d like to see an article cover, is how the passengers are cared for over time. How are government ids reissued? How do you get police reports needed for some? How is compensation dealt with? Is it to make you whole, or just help you a handful of days? How are physical issues (like whiplash) dealt with? Is this the same across countries and carriers? Is it reasonable and fair?

    I think if people knew that the airline industry was really good at this, then it would also be very reassuring and reduce the incidence of people behaving like asses. However it looks like each airline handles its own accidents (somewhat arbitrarily), and that each contract of carriage (which no one reads) covers what they’ll do. The usual small dollar amounts, long lists of exclusions, and submissions in writing. Add that to the adversarial relationship and we can see why people behave how they do.

  2. Christine Negroni says:

    Roger, you make many valid points. I do believe that passengers faced with an emergency are not thinking clearly. It is up to the flight attendants to remind passengers during evacuation to leave their possessions. That said, I fly frequently and the overwhelming majority of my fellow flyers are not paying attention to the safety briefing, they are reading, listening to something on their headsets or talking to their companions. In short, travelers are complacent, which is downside to aviation’s stellar safety record. Regarding the intricacies of airline operations there is no shortage of material available, starting here with my focus on aviation safety. I’d also suggest Patrick Smith’s excellent book, Cockpit Confidential and his website for passenger experience information there’s Mary Kirby’s and Harriet Baskas’s Check them out, you’ll learn a lot. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts which are a good reminder that everyone of the billions of people who will board an airplane this year is having a unique experience.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Enter to Win

Want to receive some free swag from Christine? Sign up for the mailing list!