Leave Your Stupid Luggage!


When the investigators get around to completing their probe of the BA 777 fire and evacuation in Las Vegas last week, the look-see into the engine will be interesting enough. But I think I’m going to be just as interested in what they learn about how the evacuation was handled.

Specifically, what role did the crew play in herding the pax toward the slides in an expeditious and safe evacuation and why in the name of all that is holy did so many of them take their carry-on luggage with them? The photo here—credit to Metro UK—shows several passengers standing on the runway or a taxiway with their roll-aboard luggage. The fellow in the foreground has both a roll-aboard and hand luggage.

To this audience, I don’t need to explain the sheer idiocy of such behavior. You could reasonably argue that maybe they didn’t understand the seriousness of their plight because the airplane is so big. They could see neither smoke nor fire. The fallacy of that reasoning is that if the crew has decided it’s necessary to throw your butt down 30-foot inflatable slides, that’s the internationally recognized symbol that you’re in deep enough doo that you leave the luggage where it is and get off the airplane. Ask questions later.

According to radio transcripts, 40 seconds elapsed from the time the crew determined it had a fire and called for emergency equipment until the evacuation started. The exact duration of the evacuation hasn’t been reported, but getting the fire under control took a number of minutes. I won’t be surprised if it took two minutes for the equipment to roll and arrive. The fact that it did shows why during certification, manufacturers have to demonstrate that the cabin can be evacuated in 90 seconds, using half of the available slides. The accident data has shown that fires can go from minor to unsurvivable in mere seconds by filling the cabin with dense smoke and toxic fumes. As with any enclosed space, aircraft cabins are susceptible to flashovers.

I wonder if the accident probe will show that evacuation to have been a near thing. Seconds can separate survival of everyone from multiple fatalities and it’s sheer lunacy to waste even one of them rooting around in the overhead for luggage and then clogging up the aisle or damaging a slide on the exit with a suitcase. Perhaps it’s too much to expect the uneducated masses to make this distinction, since half of them snooze through the cabin briefing or amuse themselves with a smartphone app.

In aviation, we pride ourselves in remaining calm during the course of an emergency and it’s not just to sound good on the tape. Keeping panic at bay helps focus the mind on the decision-making and rapid execution on which survival turns. Perhaps a different standard should apply to cabin crew. Should they be trained and encouraged to say something like, “Leave your ^%$&*& baggage and get off this airplane now! Move now!” A little more R. Lee Ermey, a little less David Niven.

I, for one, would vote for that.