Would You be Ready for an Airliner Evacuation?

  • Sep 10, 2015 11:21am GMT

"Speedbird 2276 Heavy, we are evacuating on the runway. We have a fire. I repeat, we are evacuating."

Those were the words of Captain Chris Henkey to air traffic control right after he stopped his busted Boeing 777 on the runway at McCarran International Airport. Then the airline crew's training kicks in.

Evacuate! Pull the doors and drop the slides! Everybody out!

The engine fire forced an aborted takeoff and everyone had to get off the plane. Quickly. For the passengers of British Airways flight 2276 the emergency came with little warning. But even before the flight crew gave the order to evacuate my guess is that most of the passengers already knew they needed to get off the plane fast.

This is definitely doable. The FAA requires that all airliners shall be able to evacuate all persons on board in less than 90 seconds with half the available exits unusable (FAA AC 25.803-1A). That’s less time than it takes to play the Beatles song “Help!” This is demonstrated in testing, and a successful test is necessary for final aircraft certification.

It's that point that makes me question the priorities of the passengers aboard flight 2276. According to some videos that emerged in the aftermath many passengers can be seen with their large roller bag carry-ons in hand. That would mean that they took the extra time in the chaos of the evacuation to reach in the overhead compartment, pull their bag down, and haul it through the crowded aisle to the emergency slide.

But it’s just one bag, you say. What’s the big deal?

The evacuation drill for certification has bags, pillows, and other debris in the aisles to simulate real-world scenario, but it doesn’t include passengers carrying bags off the aircraft. Let’s say the average delay time per bag is 5 seconds. This includes the time needed to reach up to open the overhead compartment, pulling the bag down, and the extra delay hauling it through a crowded aisle. If half of the 170 people on board flight 2276 took the time to take their bag the evacuation would have taken an additional 7 MINUTES longer than necessary. Imagine being the last one to exit the smoke-filled cabin knowing that your one minute evac time is now over 7 minutes!

If you ever find yourself in an emergency and need to evacuate and airliner (and I hope none of you ever does) please do the right thing. No matter what is in your carry-on please, please leave it on board and retrieve it later after everyone is safe. Nobody wants to be in that situation, and I’d hope no one wants to know that they may have contributed to someone else being seriously injured. Or even killed.


============================= Not convinced that an airliner can be successfully evacuated in less than 90 seconds? Check out the video below showing the certification test Airbus did to certify their A380. The airliner had to successfully evacuate 873 people in less than 90 seconds with only 8 of the 16 available doors. They accomplished this with time to spare. But watch the video again and imagine what it would look like if even 1/3 of those people stopped to grab their large carry-on and tried to carry it through the chaos.