Yet again we see video of passengers evacuating a damaged aircraft, this time a British Airways Boeing 777 at McCarran International in Las Vegas, while lugging their carry-on bags. Clearly either these clueless passengers didn’t think the fire that engulfed the left engine after the engine failed on takeoff was so serious that they should hustle out the door and down the slide without pausing to grab their belongings. Or else they, like most passengers, didn’t pay one iota of attention to the preflight briefing and blindly went about getting off the airplane with the same stuff they brought on. One passenger quoted on the news said that fellow passengers were even opening overhead bins to gather their stuff.
So, what’s to do be done about this problem? Someday, if it hasn’t already happened, someone is going to cause enough of an evacuation delay that a passenger or crewmember will die because some idiot thought his carry-on laptop- and tablet-stuffed backpack or roller bag is more important than peoples’ lives.
It turns out that during the aircraft certification process, there is no requirement that participants acting as passengers during full-scale evacuation demonstrations act like real passengers. In other words, during these tests, the goal is to get everyone off the airplane as quickly as possible. The rules don’t say anything about having a few passengers act selfishly and try to gather their bags for a trip down the slide.
Clearly this is anything but realistic. Shouldn’t certification tests mimic reality as much as possible?
To learn more, I perused the applicable FAA advisory circular AC 25.803-1A. According to this AC, “A full-scale demonstration is conducted to assess the evacuation capability of the airplane and, when compliance with Paragraph G of Appendix J regarding compliance with § 121.291 is requested, also to demonstrate the effectiveness of crew training and emergency procedures.”
In the AC, I found only one reference to passenger luggage, which is outlined in the advice for compliance with Part 25, Appendix J, Paragraph k. “Simulated carry-on luggage in the form of small suitcases, gym bags, airplane flight bags, briefcases, etc., filled with clothes or newspaper, that will fit under a passenger seat, should be placed in the main aisle(s) with approximately one bag per seat row for each aisle. Also, some bags should be placed in the cross aisles and passageways, at approximately the same spacing as in the main aisle(s). Additionally, pillows and blankets should be scattered in the main aisle(s), approximately one pillow or blanket for every two rows. In order to maintain a more typical preflight scenario, the bags, etc., should be distributed after the safety briefing takes place.”
There is no mention of having some of the demonstration “passengers” grab bags and open overhead bins and try to exit with their luggage.
This full-scale evacuation demonstration is clearly not realistic and should be changed. Much of what we learn from accidents gets transmuted into new regulations and training practices, but someone at the FAA and NTSB isn’t watching videos of what people actually do in a real evacuation. This behavior—I hate to say it’s normal but it is—should be taken into account in future full-scale demonstrations. If nothing changes, however, don’t be surprised if you’re trying to exit a burning airplane and people in front of you are busy grabbing their stuff while the flames and smoke are quickly approaching. If this happens to me, I guarantee the only reason I’m grabbing my heavy backpack is to use it as a weapon to smack selfish baggage-lugging passengers out of the way so I can get off the burning airplane.