Thursday 10 September 2015

A short assessment of the British Airways Flight 2276 Evacuation and Passenger Behaviour

Yesterday, a British Airways flight 2276 from Las Vegas to London Gatwick had one of it's engines catch fire at take off.

During an evacuation of an aircraft, there are few a simple rules to follow. Look for the emergency exits, lights strips on the aisle guide you to it, and walk to the exit to evacuate, leaving all personal belongings behind.

They are made as simple as possible due to the panic and stress that can be induced during the emergency.

The light strips were actually introduced, after a British AirTours Flight 28M air craft caught fire, where 54 passengers lost their lives due to the smoke in the cabin, and many  passengers crawling in the wrong direction. As smoke rises, the ground level is the last part of the cabin to fill up with smoke, so the light strips help you to the exits.

Flight 28M caught fire during take-off after a loud thump was heard during take-off. Any similarities to this Flight 2276, where the captain told NBC "There was a loud bang and the aircraft sort of veered to the left..." ? You see where I'm going with this.

Passenger Evacuation Behaviour

Lets first look at the behaviour of passengers, by just looking at one dramatic photo. We see a number of passengers evacuating with their hand bags, luggage, and so on. This goes in contrast to the instructions provided in the event of an emergency.

Passengers leaving the aircraft. (Source)

This one image has created a significant amount of anger over social media, denouncing these passengers as selfish, and valuing their own personal belongings over other people's lives. However, some passengers (not necessarily the ones on this aircraft) argue that they would take their personal belongings for all sorts of reasons, business, medication, they had it on their lap (such as their laptops), and so on, maintaining that they don't see a problem with it if they already have it on them. As can be seen from some of the comments in this BBC news article.


I keep all my most important items in my carry-on bag. It would be extremely damaging to my business if I lost it. So yes, I would TRY to get my bag off the plane as I was leaving -- but ONLY IF it was possible to do so without blocking anyone else or otherwise impeding the evacuation.

My hand luggage usually contains my medication, my girlfriend has her inhaler in hers. Leaving either behind could cause a further medical emergency.

Damn right I would take my hand luggage. My passport would be in there, all my contacts and insurance documents too. Without which I'm stuffed and potentially trapped if the plane burns to a crisp. 

At school, we were told that in the event of a fire drill we should leave all belongings on the desk and proceed to the fire exit. With that said, if I was physically using my laptop at the time, why wouldn't I would take it with me? If it doesn't slow you down or put yourself or others at risk, why not grab your hand luggage?

Dangerous Behaviour?

Lets take these two contrasting views into account, and start breaking it down to the reasons why this sort of behaviour may or may not be a danger. 

First of all, fire spreads, and spreads fast. Several examples can be found where fire, initially small has spread incredibly fast without warning, in nature, wild fires are a good example, but house fires, and fires in confined spaces such as night clubs and train stations also spread fast. Similarly, aircraft cabins are prime venues for fire to spread quickly, or atleast for it to be engulfed with smoke much much quicker than if the venue is not contained. The smoke can have the ability to incapacitate rapidly, impair judgement and vision.

Therefore, there is generally a rule for aircraft evacuation, where the aircraft crew has 90 seconds to evacuate all passengers including themselves. The light strips along the aisle will guide passengers towards the exit, and passengers to leave without any belongings. Delaying the evacuation reduces the chances of survival.

Secondly, in regards to passengers who do not see a problem with carrying belongings they have on their laps, such as a laptop. That is an object that can be dropped on the floor, especially in the panic. In addition, if the smoke has impaired judgement and caused confusion, objects like these, as well as purses, handbags, can cause obstructions and congestion. There was an experiment I took part in, as part of the BBC's 'Bang goes the theory' series where, a participant exited a simulated evacuation with her handbag, and actually got stuck. This is another example of how personal belongings can cause a problem.

Thirdly, this is specific to an aircraft evacuation. When a passenger wears heels, spectacles, bags that have sharp corners, and so on, can actually cause tears in the slide, and in turn, restrict the use of that particular exit, which puts other passengers in grave danger.

Finally, if the smoke and fire suddenly becomes intense, all passengers will want to evacuate immediately, increasing pressure and density towards the exit. This situation can lead to crushing, and personal belongings are likely to be dropped and cause further injuries.

However, if passengers have already got personal belongings on them whilst exiting, it is best to let them continue to do so, as asking them to leave belongings behind can actually make the evacuation less orderly, as an Australian Safety Trasportation Board reported in 2001.

Here is a video of a simulation of a couple of scenarios where we can observe how quickly smoke and fire can spread within a cabin, and the effect of the slowdown it has on the passengers caught up in that area where it's most intense. These are scenarios with passengers without any personal belongings.

Whether the behaviour is selfish in and of itself, it is normal human behaviour to think about your own belongings that you hold dear in the event of an emergency especially as one is in a confused and stressed state, in addition to not thinking clearly as to how life-threatening the danger actually is. Nobody knows how they will behave in an emergency situation. Therefore, during such a situation, it is best to listen to the crew that are in control and to trust them above your own individual instincts, as they have had the specific training to handle such situations. Primarily based on research and historical incidents.

It is a system issue here, and in order to counter instinctive human behaviour, there may be changes that may be necessary to be implemented, but as so often is the case, it will possibly only happen if an actual disaster takes place due to this type of behaviour.