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 U.S. 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.”
Veteran aviation accident investigators were again left shaking their heads. Since 2015, the National Transportation Safety Board has investigated three other emergency airliner evacuations with issues that slowed passenger exits, including people taking their bags.
At a meeting Tuesday on the Chicago fire and its chaotic evacuation, the NTSB concluded that U.S. 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 to identify better ways to prevent the problem.
The problem has vexed regulators because it involves human behavior, 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 labor unions representing flight crews also are calling for actions to stem the practice. American 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. Some airlines, including carriers from outside the U.S., already have begun discussing the problem, Delta Air Lines Inc. said.
“It’s really 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, she said.
“I would think that 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 U.K. 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 warnings before each flight 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. Almost half of passengers involved in evacuations who had carry-on bags, 208 out of 419 interviewed, admitted to trying to take items with them, the study said.
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, the agency said in an emailed statement. The message has been included in holiday travel advisories, press releases and a website with travel tips, the agency said.
It is evaluating the NTSB’s finding and recommendations, it said in a statement.
“It’s a huge problem,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA union. In pre-flight briefings, some airlines require attendants to remind passengers not to retrieve bags in an emergency, yet it’s still ignored, Nelson said.
“We’ve seen it in every single emergency evacuation I can think of in the last 10 years,” she said.
The union, the largest representing flight attendants in the world, is calling for an industrywide effort with airlines, the labor force, airports and the FAA to seek solutions, she said. The AFA supports more consistent enforcement of size and weight of carry-on bags, limiting the number of bags allowed on board and increased passenger education, she said.
“There is clearly a need to evaluate and measure the effects of passengers who panic or otherwise 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 union at American.
The APA also supports additional actions, Tajer said. The fact that the problem has occurred so often before is evidence that the current system to educate passengers isn’t working, he said. “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 just that seriously.”
“A lot of people ignore the safety briefing,” said Peter Goelz, the NTSB’s former managing director who is now an adviser to the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, the union representing 26,000 American Airlines workers. “Flight attendants would be supportive of a stronger briefing and more emphasis on the entirety of it.”
Rather than relying on the uncertainty of trying to change human behavior, airlines and regulators should look at a technical solution, Richard Healing, a former NTSB member who now leads Air Safety Engineering LLC, said.
“The FAA should consider a requirement that during an emergency evacuation, overhead bins be locked as the first step in the process, instantly locked so people can’t jump up and get their stuff,” Healing said. He acknowledged the industry would likely oppose the costs of such technology.
It’s clear that the results of slowed evacuations can be deadly. After a British Airtours jet caught fire on the ground in Manchester, England, in 1985, 55 people died because they couldn’t exit the plane before being overcome by toxic smoke. Eleven people died within feet of an exit on a burning USAir plane in Los Angeles in 1991.
American Flight 383 – the subject of Tuesday’s hearing – had almost reached takeoff speed when an engine exploded, severing fuel lines and piercing the wing tank on the Boeing Co. 767-300. The resulting evacuation was flawed and highly chaotic, the NTSB concluded on Tuesday.
All seven flight attendants told investigators they saw passengers toting everything from purses to large suitcases.
“There needs to be something done with the bags,” flight attendant Christina Katz told investigators. “One passenger came running up the right aisle with a bag over his head. A flight attendant from the back was trying to get it away from him. The man kept yelling, ‘I’m taking it with me.’ “
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