For many people, the simple thought of getting on an airplane causes immediate dry mouth, a fluttering stomach, and for some, abject terror. For others like me and my fellow AvGeeks, we relish the chance to be near anything that flies, let alone be aboard it when it does.
The fear of flying is both completely rational and totally irrational at the same time. On the rational end of the fear, one gives up all control, stuffs themselves into a thin metal tube, launches themselves into the sky using principles they can barely pronounce (Bernoulli – BER-NEW-EE) let alone understand, and, should there be some sort of incredibly rare incident, find themselves unable to simply open the door and walk away.
The flip side is the irrational bit of the fear of flying. No, I am not going to quote you some statistical evidence about the fact that flying is far safer than driving (it is), but I will make the case that the statistics are driven by real-world learning and procedures that have been enacted to ensure the flying public is safe every time they board an aircraft.
Recently, I was chatting with a friend who is the head of safety at a large global airline and we were discussing how modern aviation is so much safer each year due to advancements in training, technology, and the knowledge gained from prior incidents.
Serious incidents are exceptionally rare but that doesn’t mean passengers should be complacent. While pilots will complete a briefing before every flight to review specific safety-critical elements (take-off and landing) and discuss potential threats and how to mitigate them, passengers should also take the opportunity to consider these same threats, and as a result plan accordingly.
So, let’s take a look at what I think passengers should do…
At the Departure Gate
You hand over your ticket to the agent at the gate and that familiar “beep” signals your approval to transition down the jetway to begin your aviation adventure.
Walking the short distance down the portal that takes you to the aircraft, you’re already thinking about relaxing in your seat. A welcoming smile greets you and you find your way to what will be your ‘home’ for the next few hours or longer. You go through your well-practiced pre-flight rituals and may get changed into pajamas or remove your shoes in anticipation of the long flight ahead. You are feeling the soporific effect of the two glasses of wine enjoyed before boarding and you doze off…
WHOOP! WHOOP! WHOOP! “THIS IS THE CAPTAIN. EVACUATE! EVACUATE!”
You are woken from your slumber by a cacophony of noise and people shouting at you. There is an awful smell and it’s completely dark, except for some dim lighting. Instantly alert, you realize that you need to get out but you can’t remember where the closest exit is. In haste you go for the door you entered through not realizing there is in fact a closer exit behind you.
You pause to grab your laptop bag – it’s got important photos and that presentation on it.
Pushed and pulled you approach the exit and are manhandled by the crew onto the slide and propelled into the darkness. The aircraft has suffered a fire in its Auxiliary Power Unit (used to start the engines) that hasn’t been extinguished but you’ve been saved from mortal danger by the crew and by being evacuated. However, this is Toronto, it’s a night in February and the outside air temperature is -38C (-36F) which with a wind of 20 MPH (which feels like -56C (-69F). The relief of having escaped the fire is quickly replaced with the realization that you are now outside on the tarmac but it’s snowing and you’re only wearing thin clothing and no shoes.
You are corralled by the crew and led away from the aircraft. There is a surreal disco of the flashing lights from the fire vehicles as they swarm around the aircraft. It’s really cold now and you’re shivering. You have pins and needles in your hands and feet, and it’s only been five minutes since you came down the slide. You’re suffering the first signs of hypothermia which you know can quickly lead to unconsciousness and death, but nobody is helping you, or those around you.
It would not be unreasonable to assume you would be on the tarmac for perhaps thirty minutes and in this time your body will lose more heat than it can generate, accelerated by those wines you had. Frostnip or frostbite are a possibility and if your core temperature continues to drop, this could be life threatening.
Whilst this exact situation has been fabricated, it has been framed from blending together a number of actual incidents that have occurred over the past decade. It’s been done to provoke thought and consideration about the potential of such incidents that passengers might not normally consider.
The airlines, airports, cabin crew and pilots all take the opportunity to identify learning from these events to prevent potential errors reoccurring, but why wouldn’t the passengers want to learn the lessons as well?
Flying is an amazing experience and I want you to enjoy every part of your journey. I hope this article will give you some tips to ensure you’re as safe as possible.
It is against the law in most countries to be intoxicated on an aircraft. Indeed most, if not all, airlines will refuse boarding to anyone who is deemed too inebriated to evacuate independently in an emergency. This is obviously for your own safety and the safety of others. A few drinks are fine but my advice is to ensure you always remain alert and aware.
It’s not uncommon for some travelers to self-medicate on board (sleep medication, anxiety pills, or other remedies). Obviously, this could reduce your ability to think clearly or be self-aware during the take-off or landing phases. Thus, this is not something I would recommend, particularly if you could become incapacitated to a level where you would not be fully aware and able to evacuate the aircraft on your own.
The Big Five
As a frequent traveller (more than 100 flights annually) who is acutely aware of the increased risk during take-off and landing, I have a small travel wallet, on/or near me, during these phases. The wallet contains the travelers ‘Big Five’ (PECMM):
- Essential Medication
- Car/House Keys
- Credit Cards and Cash
- Mobile Phone
I will only stow this away in the overhead locker after the seatbelt sign is switched off and take it out again before it is turned on again prior to landing. This is the only thing you need to take with you if you have to leave the aircraft in an emergency.
(Please watch the video below. Do NOT take your carry-on luggage with you in an evacuation.)
The Safety Briefing and Video
The aircraft safety video may be the most boring video you’ve ever seen and you may have seen it dozens of times, but you never know whether that one piece of information you glean from it will save your life. I have flown millions of miles on hundreds of flights and I always watch the safety video, read the safety card in the seat back pocket, and count the rows to the nearest exit.
[Some airlines have recently created some amusing and engaging safety videos that you can find here.]
Michael McAdam of Westjet has been delivering a live safety briefing that gets thunderous applause from passengers when he finishes. Here’s an example:
It can be difficult to be aware of your environment if you have been in the “bubble” of the airport for the past few hours. This can lull you into a false sense of security and, as in the scenario above, could be a big shock if you are forced into a hostile environment particularly when you’re not prepared for it.
Whilst the scenario above has focussed on the extremes of a cold environment, there have been recent incidents where extremes of heat have caused totally avoidable injuries. A large aircraft evacuated during pushback in the peak of summer in Phoenix, Arizona. Passengers experienced severe burns on the soles of their feet as they were evacuated onto the tarmac – which was hot enough to fry an egg – without footwear and were unable to get off the vast expanse. You should try to think about what it would be like to be outside on the apron should you find yourself in such a situation.
It is exceptionally rare for an aircraft to have to evacuate but hopefully some of the advice will prepare you should it ever happen to you. Remember the basic BE’s for every flight:
- BE ready and able to escape safely and swiftly.
- BE prepared with the Big Five.
- BE aware of your environment (inside and out, weather, and exits)
- BE dressed appropriately.
- BE ready to leave everything behind.
To close, I would like to share some advice that will both enable you to prepare for and have a comfortable flight.
- Wear trousers for critical stages of the flight. This will not only provide you with protection in cold and hot environments but prevent injury from the escape slides should they be used. When the slide is used, evacuees are slowed by the rough surface at the end (designed to snag clothing) and it can cause friction burns or ‘gravel rash’.
- Wear trainers/sneakers or flat soled shoes and keep them on for take-off and landing. Avoid footwear such as flip flops which are likely to come off and/or hinder your evacuation.
- Change into more comfortable clothing once you are airborne. This will also keep your regular clothes fresh for your arrival at your destination.
- Remember that the effects of alcohol are increased onboard an aircraft. Drink sensibly and remember to drink water too.
As mentioned above, I am a regular flyer, both short-haul and long-haul, and it worries me when I see fellow long-haul passengers changing into pajamas and getting “bed ready” before we have even pushed back. The extra few minutes this saves, might be the difference between being unscathed and placing yourself in a true survival situation. On a JFK-LHR segment, it would be a significant shock to the system, and a huge learning experience, should we have to evacuate on a cold winter night in New York!
Flying is a joy and hopefully nothing I have suggested here will change this for you. The aim is to ensure passengers are better informed about the potential risks they face and to be better prepared and able to respond appropriately, should the unthinkable occur.