While aviation experts have said crashes and hazardous emergencies are “extremely rare, two aviation-related incidents from last week have brought the question of safety aboard an aircraft back into the public consciousness.
On Friday (Saturday NZT), an Alaska Airlines plane made a dramatic emergency landing after a piece of the Boeing 737-9 Max plane’s wall blew out midair. Earlier in the week, a Japan Airlines jet caught fire after colliding with a coast guard plane at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, killing five coast guard crew members.
All 171 passengers and six crew members on the Alaska Airlines flight as well as the 367 passengers and 12 crew members on the Japan Airlines jet survived the incidents. Flight safety experts attributed the success of the Alaska Airlines emergency landing and Japan Airlines evacuation to the crews’ strict guidance and passengers’ compliance.
Commercial air travel is one of the safest methods of transportation, according to the National Safety Council in the US, and although danger is rare, it does happen. When disaster strikes, being prepared by wearing natural fibres, rather than synthetic, in the event of a fire, or simply listening to the preflight safety brief so you know how to don an oxygen mask, can save lives.
Here’s what experts say to stay safe in an air accident or incident:
1. Before the flight
Before leaving home, flight safety expert Anthony Brickhouse says passengers should consider wearing long pants and closed-toe shoes for protection in case they need to disembark without notice. They should also eat a meal before boarding the plane in case the aircraft makes an emergency landing far from an airport.
During boarding, passengers should make note of where the emergency exits are, including the one closest to them. In the event of an emergency evacuation, experts recommend leaving all belongings behind. They should also listen to the safety briefing before takeoff, and follow all instructions from flight attendants and pilots.
“They are providing vital information to passengers about the airplane itself, about what they should be doing in case of emergency – that’s important information, even for seasoned travellers,” said Hassan Shahidi, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation. “When an emergency happens, that becomes even more important.”
2. Medical emergencies
There have been many notable medical emergencies on flights, including the death of American Express President Ed Gilligan on a 2015 corporate plane and the time a flight attendant who used to be a nurse delivered a baby aboard an 11-hour flight.
In case of a medical emergency, the flight crew might ask for help from someone on the ground or a physician, if they are on board. Flight attendants are trained to provide basic care, like first-aid and CPR
Most major airlines will be able to communicate with an on-ground medical operator that can walk them through various medical scenarios if doctors or attendants need assistance. Airlines are prohibited from departing unless there is a sealed emergency medical kit on board, the US Federal Aviation Administration website says.
The flight may need to be diverted if the situation requires urgent care.
Flight crews are “not really trained to be emergency medical staff, but they certainly have basic training in dealing with these kinds of things,” Shahidi said.
3. Unruly passenger
In 2022, the FAA received 2455 reports of unruly passengers, down from nearly 6000 reports in 2021, according to the agency’s website. In 2023, the number declined to 2075. Such behaviour includes cursing, yelling and physically assaulting crew members and other passengers.
When a fellow passenger is acting up, leave it to the professionals, said Brickhouse, a professor who teaches aviation safety and investigation courses at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
“Flight attendants are trained to deal with unruly passengers,” Brickhouse said. “Let the flight attendants do their job and assist the flight attendants with however they may need to be assisted.”
4. Major turbulence
Brickhouse urges passengers to wear their seat belt at all times – even when the seat belt sign is off.
On Friday’s Alaska Airlines flight, a panelled-over exit door blew out, leaving a gaping hole beside a row of seats, The Washington Post reported. Elizabeth Le, 20, one of the flight’s 171 passengers, said she heard an “extremely loud pop”. She told the New York Times that while no one was sitting in the window seat next to the missing exit door, a teenage boy and his mother were sitting in the middle and aisle seats at the time of the incident.
Had an unbuckled passenger been occupying the window seat, Brickhouse said, “we could be dealing with a totally different news story this morning”.
Doug Moss, director of the aviation-safety program at the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering, said this should be one of the first things passengers should do once they board the flight.
“It sounds self-explanatory but there are a select few that like to go against the grain,” he said.
5. Plane fire
In case of a fire, Brickhouse advised passengers to remain calm and listen to the professionals. But he also offered another key piece of advice: Think about what you’re wearing.
Ditch the synthetic fibres such as polyester and nylon, which can melt to your skin, Brickhouse said. “Cotton fibres and natural fibres are going to give you more protection.”
Moss said being covered is important because flames can work their way through layers, so long-sleeve shirts, jackets or other forms of coverage would act as a barrier while you navigate the situation. Having comfortable shoes and other attire can also help you focus on the task at hand.
You should leave your luggage behind and stay away from any sighting of smoke, he added.
“That’s a perfect example of when you need to evacuate off an airplane – you didn’t see it coming, but all of a sudden, bam, there you are, you gotta get out,” he said.
Brickhouse advises all passengers to pay attention to the safety briefings before takeoff. They will be instructed on how to put on oxygen masks, how their seat belts work, where air vents are located and their nearest emergency exits.
If a plane depressurises, which may be gradual or rapid depending on the situation, a pilot will be alerted. Standard practice calls for the pilot to descend the plane to 10,000 feet, the highest altitude a human can sustain normal breathing at, until the pilot has resolved the issue.
“It’s really frustrating when I see passengers with noise-cancelling headphones on and not paying attention to the safety briefing,” Brickhouse said, “because the flight attendants are going to tell you everything you need to know.”