Aircraft Accidents and Evacuation

Did you ever see a documentary on how an airliner is built, from drawing board to test flight?  Each new airliner must have an evacuation test performed to certify the number of passengers that can be safely evacuated in an emergency; a controlled simulation, employing test subjects who resemble Olympic athletes, instead of real-live passengers.  There’s the hundred-meter Dashers who can cover the distance from their seat to an exit like a gazelle; the sixty-meter Hurdlers leaping over other evacuees and the High Jumpers, clearing the seatbacks with little to no effort.  These employee-slash-test subjects can expedite out the various exits like water through a sieve.

What test subjects you don’t see are those that resemble the pregnant Mom with three children in tow; the Great-grandmother confined to a walker or the Sumo wrestler who barely fits into his Coach seat, much less the aisle … and, if you read last week’s article on Aircraft Accidents and the Survival Instinct, the untrained Emotional Support Animals getting caught up in the panic.  For such a simulation to accurately demonstrate what happens when an airliner evacuation is in crisis, one has to throw in lots of smoke, kill the lights, have everyone yelling simultaneously at the top of their lungs, some luggage from under the seats littering the aisles, children and the handicapped being trampled upon and the pushing/shoving/fighting that goes along with desperation.

And one more thing: add the selfish passenger trying to extricate his laptop or luggage out of the overhead bin, even while he is fighting the flow of traffic to get to it.

To those who read my columns, you would notice I do not agree with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) that often.  However, in regards to this topic of overhead bins and unsafe passenger practices, I’m pleasantly surprised to see the NTSB come out on the side of common sense, leaving the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) seriously wanting.  It isn’t that the issue hasn’t come up before; there are quite a few events that we know of that have had passengers demonstrate a complete lack of safety without any consequences for their actions.

To give perspective, to those of us who fly, for pleasure or business, all of us have witnessed the logjam that greets us every time we board a flight.  The logjam occurs because numerous passengers who boarded fifteen minutes before you, are still looking for an overhead bin.  Once found, they waste more time blocking other passengers while stuffing luggage twice the size of the overhead bin … into the overhead bin.  Then they bounce like a pinball, looking for another overhead bin to house their other pieces of luggage.

On February 2nd, Bloomberg ran an article:  This article followed the NTSB Investigatory Hearing into American Flight 383, the B767 that burned on an O’Hare runway following an uncontained engine fire on October 28, 2016.  One issue raised was the emergency evacuation interruptions by passengers, e.g. a woman passenger who ignored the flight crew’s orders to “drop her luggage”, thus holding up the egress of other passengers.  The luggage posed a threat to the inflatable escape slide, e.g. sharp corners, zippers.  She blocked the aisle to get her luggage, before lumbering down the aisle.  This could have had serious fatal consequences to numerous other passengers, many of whom couldn’t get their children around her in the narrow space.

On August 3, 2016, an Emirates airliner in Dubai found passengers desperately trying to liberate their luggage from overhead bins, even as Flight Attendants yelled to leave everything behind.  Other similar emergency evacuation problems, where passengers defy flight crew orders to ‘drop the luggage’ get lost in the hype behind the accident and accompanying investigation.  Meanwhile, aviation authorities shake their heads, saying “What to do? What to do?”

Common Sense should prevail.  However, in the world of accident investigation and regulation, common sense is lost.  Consider the tragedy of Germanwings 9525: in the wake of 9-11, we created a ‘fix’; a situation where the cockpit door was so secure, even the Captain couldn’t get back inside.  What if a similar event occurred that wasn’t a suicide?  What if the first officer did become incapacitated by stroke or heart attack.  Would the end result have been different?

Every self-proclaimed aviation expert looks for ‘new fixes’; untested, unnecessary and senseless ‘solutions’ to, in this case, the dangerous-passenger problem.  One ‘solution’ levied by our ‘aviation experts’ is to design overhead bins that lock in an emergency.  I can’t begin to list the problems that THAT ‘fix’ would present: How would the airplane’s computers know to lock the bins?  Is there going to be a ‘Lock-the-Bins’ switch installed in the cockpit?  Can the plane be dispatched with the overhead bin locks broken?  And then there’s the ultimate fly-in-the-ointment problem: what if the lock activates due to a relay problem, then can’t be released after landing?  What to do?  What to do?

Maybe it’s the mechanic in me or my experience working at Risk Analysis, but perhaps we should start asking the question, ‘Why’ enough times until we find – – – THE ROOT CAUSE!  The ironic thing is, it only takes asking ‘Why’ five times before the answer presents itself; I know this because I’ve employed Risk Analysis in accident investigations, troubleshooting and inspections – ask ‘Why’ five times, that’s all it takes.  In my experience, the solution is simple and so in-your-face obvious.

One solution I would put forth is: start using civil penalties against passengers who defy flight crew instructions; you don’t even have to write them, they already exist.  According to FAA Order 2150.3B, ‘Interference with Cabin or Flight Crew’ carries a fine of $25,000 for the violation.  According to Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 13.301, (revised 01/01/2017), interfering with a cabin or flight crew [member] now carries a maximum fine of $34,172.  If enough people receive civil penalties requiring them to mortgage their house to pay for stupid actions that threaten the lives of others, then perhaps it will cease to be a problem.  That’s too tough?  Right.  And maybe we should allow people to continue driving drunk and performing other stupid acts without consequences.

What exactly does it mean: interfering with a cabin or flight crew?  It means – not suggests – that both a flight crew (pilot) and cabin crew (flight attendant) are the final authorities of the aircraft’s safety from passenger loading to passenger deplaning.  What it means is, if the flight attendant tells a passenger to “drop the bag” and get off the burning airplane, that the passenger doesn’t ignore said flight attendant or argue, but drops the bag, turns tail and runs out of the plane.

The reason this will not happen or will only occur under threat of FAA violation, is because the airline doesn’t want to ‘upset paying customers’, even the stupid ones; the airline is so busy apologizing for the event that the they won’t back the flight crews; instead they will defer to the crazy customer whose eyes rotate non-stop, in a counter-clockwise direction.

It also means that, unless the FAA pushes the issue – which they should, but won’t – the flight crews will have no teeth; they will be ignored as the guilty passenger thumbs his or her nose at them.  In this case, the NTSB should hold the FAA to task, by requiring the FAA to exercise the authority given to them by Congress to make the skies and people safer.  Come on NTSB, this is your moment to shine!

What else can solve the problem?  How about removing overhead bins or limiting their use to emergency equipment, e.g. bottled oxygen.  Wow, what a weight savings; less fuel burned, more profit.  Kaching!  Kaching!  The FAA isn’t in the Commerce business; outside of safety issues, it can’t tell an airline how to run its business.  But overhead bins are no longer a Commerce issue, they are a Safety issue with proven violations to support removing them.  Passengers have begun bringing carry-ons onboard because airlines charge for check-in luggage.  In the name of Safety, the FAA can require airlines to do away with the charge, thus depriving passengers of the reason to bring carry-ons onboard.  That’s what luggage compartments in the aircraft’s belly are for.

And here’s another reason, folks: while airlines are tricking passengers into hauling their own luggage upstairs, airlines charge for other customers to carry their cargo in the luggage compartments that passengers aren’t using.  Kaching!  Kaching!  Bottom line: passengers are being duped, not once, but twice.

Overhead bins were originally designed for small items, necessary items, e.g. medication, pillows – not a week’s worth of luggage.  What this means is another good idea that was turned into something it wasn’t intended for.  But what about misrouted luggage?  What about long waits for luggage?  That falls under the heading of Capitalism.  Let the consumer push the airline to perform as promised; allow the consumer to hold the airline’s feet to the fire.  Routed my bag to Singapore instead of Miami?  I’ll be returning on your competitor.  Can’t seem to get me my luggage in a timely manner?  I’ll be getting my flight miles somewhere else.  The airlines have built a system that makes passengers complacent, almost obedient and forgiving; unwilling to demand the services they pay for already, while placing their safety in jeopardy.

The point is that solutions are easy; breaking out of our comfort zones, not so much.  But we must break this safety violation cycle brought about by dangerous passengers; ignore those ‘experts’ with silly solutions; don’t trust the documentary, but see what really happens.  Then use common sense and root cause risk analysis to completely fix problems.  For instance, another thing that came up this week was about the dog in the overhead … aaahh, I don’t have time to discuss how ridiculous ALL the parties were in THAT conundrum, from the dog’s owners to the airline.  I’ll save that Darwin Award for another article.

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