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.
@Ryanair Evacuation today at Barcelona airport due to passenger electronic device #lithiumbattery #cabincrew #cabincrewlife #cabincrewtraining #azafata #flightattendant #aeromoza #TCP #safety #evacuation pic.twitter.com/u8fPFuM6KD
— Cabin Crew Club (@club_cabin) July 31, 2018
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.