I recently returned from a holiday and was allocated to one of the rows with an emergency exit. It’s not the first time that I have had this experience and many people like to be in this row as there is usually additional leg room to ensure that, in the case of an emergency, it’s easier for people to move along the row to the exit itself. There was no emergency on this flight, so the only difference sitting in this row meant to me was that there was more leg room, that I got an additional briefing from the cabin crew about being in the emergency exit and further encouragement to read the safety sheet, and that all bags had to be put in an overhead compartment for take-off and landing to further help ensure that there would be no trip hazard or blockage in case of an emergency.
By chance, after I returned from holiday I caught up with the latest podcast episodes of Take to the Sky (I hadn’t wanted to listen to them around the time I was flying). I have mentioned this podcast before – but to simply summarize, it’s a series where plane crashes and lessons from them are discussed. It’s very engaging and done from a non-technical perspective so it easy for non-experts to follow. The episode I listened to was Episode 102: Air France Flight 358.
There were two things that stood out for me about the story of Air France flight 358. One was the comments in the podcast about how well written the investigation report was. Having read a number of reports related to my own research about the JL123 crash, I am familiar with how reports can be written. Although I have not read the whole report for Air France flight 358, there is no doubt from looking at key sections that it is of a really high quality. It covers all of the details, but does it in a way that shows that it is possible to handle such subject matter in a way that is comprehendible to wide audience. This is essential as it further helps to increase the chances that those who should be reading it in detail will do so and that the content will be acted upon appropriately. The report is accessible from https://www.tsb.gc.ca/eng/rapports-reports/aviation/2005/a05h0002/a05h0002.html
The other thing that I noted about the story of this crash – and it’s not the first time this has come up in an episode – was how key the instructions were by the cabin crew. They really are there first and foremost for passenger safety, regardless of the expectations about what else they may be there to do during a flight. However, the episode did further make me question the degree to which the safety briefing before take off (or, the safety drills on cruise ships, for example, which I have also experienced many times) are necessary. These days the ones on planes seem to be given little regard by many on board – although people are encouraged to pay attention, it is not strictly enforced with many passengers keeping on their headphones. One danger of this is that it may trivialise how passengers see the cabin crew. The safety drills (where you have to go to a muster station before the ship leaves port for the first time) on cruise ships during COVID, based on my experience on a ‘staycation’ cruise round some of the UK, were also little more than lip service as the priority was on trying to reduce the amount of time that people were together in a confined area. If the ship was permitted to sail like that then, why is it not acceptable at other times?
There is no shortage of evidence from episodes of Take to the Sky, documentaries I have watched, or reports that I have read that many passengers do not do as they should during an emergency. Seemingly, it doesn’t matter how many briefings people have listened to, when an emergency occurs they will do what comes naturally to them… unless there is a good reason to do otherwise. That ‘good reason’ can be in the form of clear instructions from from the cabin crew. If they take control of the situation and communicate clearly with the passengers, it tends to make a huge difference (there will, sadly, always be some passengers who will not do as they are told and I suspect no amount of safety briefings or other procedures will deal with such selfish or idiotic people).
Perhaps it is time to revisit how safety briefings are done – get rid of the clutter and bits that are not likely to make any difference in the end – but find a way to further enhance the position of cabin crew to ensure that they are given the respect that they are due and ensure that they will have the ability to communicate and give orders if an emergency occurs.
Note: The picture accompanying this post was taken in 2019 on a different flight to the one referred to in the text.