FLAMES of burning jet fuel licked the side of American Airlines Flight 383 after it screeched to a halt on a Chicago runway. As panicked passengers raced to the exits, one woman approached flight attendant Laurie Mandich lugging a large bag.
The 32-year airline veteran followed her training and told the passenger to drop it. The woman refused. When Mandich tried to take the bag away, the woman resisted.
The passenger “really made me mad,” Mandich later told US investigators reviewing the Oct 28, 2016, fire that destroyed a wide-body jet and injured more than 20 people.
“She was taking up valuable time.”
At a meeting last week on the Chicago fire and its chaotic evacuation, the NTSB concluded that US regulators’ actions to “mitigate this potential safety hazard have not been effective”.
Nearly two decades after an NTSB study identified passengers carrying bags as the biggest impediment during emergency evacuations, the safety board called on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to identify better ways to prevent the problem.
The problem has vexed regulators because it involves human behaviour, which is notoriously hard to fix. Among the solutions that have been suggested: beefed up preflight instructions, additional training for the flight crew and overhead bins that can be automatically locked in an emergency.
Several airlines and labour unions representing flight crews are also calling for actions to stem the practice. American Airlines believes the issue “warrants additional industry attention, given the risks that non-compliant passengers pose to themselves and others by slowing the evacuation and, potentially, puncturing and deflating critical escape slides,” the company said in a submission to the NTSB.
“It’s hard to understand,” said Nora Marshal, an investigator with the NTSB for 28 years who retired as chief of its Human Performance and Survival Factors Division.
Most, if not all, of the emergency evacuations that NTSB examined during Marshal’s tenure involved at least some passengers who tried to grab their belongings.
“I would think if there was visible fire, people would be less likely to take their stuff,” she said. “But apparently that is not the case.”
The problem crosses international borders. Scores of people aboard an Emirates Airline Ltd jet that crashed onto a runway in Dubai on Aug 3, 2016, can be seen in a video grabbing bags from the overhead bins even as a flight attendant yelled, “Leave everything.”
A 2015 safety notice issued by the UK Civil Aviation Authority said “significant numbers” of passengers had been taking luggage with them during emergencies. It called on airlines to consider making more stern preflight warnings and beefing up training for flight attendants.
A safety study the NTSB compiled in 2000 found that 36 flight attendants interviewed after evacuations reported that passengers carrying bags were the biggest impediment.
The FAA, which governs airline operations and sets aviation policy, has tried for years to educate passengers on the importance of leaving their bags behind.
“It’s a huge problem,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA union, adding that in preflight briefings, some airlines require attendants to remind passengers not to retrieve bags in an emergency, yet it is still ignored.
The union, the largest representing flight attendants in the world, is calling for an industrywide effort with airlines, the labour force, airports and the FAA to seek solutions.
“There is clearly a need to evaluate and measure the effects of passengers who panic or try to take carry-on baggage while getting off an aircraft that is threatening their lives,” said Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association (APA) union at American Airlines.
The APA also supports additional actions, Tajer said, adding that the fact that the problem has occurred so often before is evidence that the current system to educate passengers isn’t working.
“It’s a human event of survival and non-compliance is not an option,” he said. “It means the difference between life and death, and we take it seriously.” — Bloomberg