How to handle an in-flight emergency

The trill is familiar: "Please listen to the following safety instructions". For frequent fliers and occasionally-airborne holidaymakers alike, it's tempting not to listen to the safety announcements that precede every flight you will ever take.

Because flying is safe. According to figures from the Civil Aviation Authority, there is an average of one fatality for every 287 million passengers carried to or from British airports. In the past 40 years, survival rates in the event of a crash have increased: between 1971 and 1980, 48 per cent of passengers survived major incidents; that rose to 67 per cent in the decade 2001-2010.

But since emergencies on planes do occur, cabin crew need to know how to handle them. Heathrow alone sees roughly one emergency landing per week.

I recently attended a cabin crew training day at British Airways, and found out a thing or two about emergency situations on board. How do the staff get everyone off as quickly as possible? Should they even be directing people off the plane? What happens if there's a fire?

The in-flight briefing

There is no legal requirement for staff to make passengers listen to the in-flight safety announcements that take place at the beginning of every flight. Those who do not follow the instructions are responsible for their own fate. However, cabin crew can intervene if rowdy passengers are preventing others from listening.

Life jackets

Staff learn emergency procedures inside out, but as a passenger, do you check your life jacket is actually there? Although spares are available on board, it is not a routine BA cabin crew requirement to make sure each seat has its inflatable. If you want to be able to don it immediately in the case of an emergency, it's up to you to check it's stowed where it should be. And no, First Class passengers do not have their own parachutes.

Types of emergency landings


In terminology that perhaps sounds paradoxical, emergency landings can be “planned” or “unplanned”. The former is when cabin crew know something bad is going to happen - you are going to have to make an emergency landing because of fire or engine failure, for example. The latter is when it just does, without warning - in the event of a terrorist attack, for instance.

Evacuation slides

The emergency slides that you hope you never have to use can be “lethal weapons”, according to James Austin, a British Airways training executive.

If members of cabin crew haven’t made sure the door is in manual on landing, the slide will inflate in less than 10 seconds, and ground staff on the other side of the door “won’t be there much longer”, James adds.

In an emergency, if passengers are refusing to get out, staff need to be prepared to do anything to get them onto the slide, including pushing, kicking, and shouting. It is their responsibility to get people out, and there is no time to accommodate those with vertigo. At full pelt, 150 people can be off in 60 seconds. The crew would also check the flight deck before leaping for the slide themselves. James explains: “If they’ve got us down, it might be nice to make sure they are alive.” For security reasons, staff are not allowed to reveal other emergency circumstances in which crew would be allowed onto the flight deck.

Landing on water

"Ditchings", as landings on water are sometimes known, should only be attempted if there is no other emergency landing option, in situations, for example, when fuel runs out or becomes contaminated.

To prepare the cabin for this type of evacuation, crew would need to instruct them to put on any available clothes, to improve chances of survival in the water, and secure loose items: once water enters the fuselage, any floating objects could impede evacuation. A reminder of the step we hear so often - "in the event of an emergency, do not inflate your lifejacket until outside the aircraft" - would be given.

The emergency slide then becomes a raft, and cabin crew would have to attempt link the inflatables together, to make as large a mass as possible, so it is as visible as possible to search parties.

One ditching with fatal consequences was the emergency landing into the Bengawan Solo River near the city of Solo on Java Island of Garuda Indonesia Airlines flight 421, a Boeing 737-300, when it experienced a dual engine failure on January 16, 2002. According to a report from the American National Transportation Safety Board, of the 60 occupants on board, one flight attendant was killed, 12 passengers received serious injuries, and 10 received minor injuries.

More recently, in 2009, a US Airways Airbus A320 was forced to ditch in the Hudson river after a flock of birds reportedly disabled both its engines. All 155 passengers and crew survived.

But what if you don't want to get people off the plane? James continues: “if you start an evacuation too soon and someone gets sucked into an engine, that’s not a good day, is it?” If the surrounding environment is downright dangerous (on fire, stormy sea, a hostile terrain, say), it might be safer to stay in the plane.

On board fires

Next up, fire. British Airways trainees have a full day on this, since they must be prepared to fight everything from a wisp of smoke escaping from an in-flight entertainment screen, to a potential explosion.

British Airways staff admit that “due to the associated electricals”, plane seats can and do catch fire, although are cagey about how often this actually happens. If there was a serious combustion on board, however, the smoke could be so toxic that two, three or four breaths could kill; if all flammable materials on board ignited, temperatures would reach 1,000C, and passengers would be unlikely to survive.

So would staff tell passengers if there was a fire on board? It would depend on size and location. If the fire was near them, in a door panel or in their seat, then obviously yes, but if it was in the galley, then they needn’t be any the wiser…

British Airways cabin crew trainees learn the ropes in a smoke-filled chamber, and are taught how to don the gas masks staff are equipped with for fire-related emergencies.

Passengers are advised to count the number of rows from their seat to the nearest exit. After joining trainees in the smoke chamber, it was easy to see why - I was completely disorientated. The smoke was not toxic, but my eyes still stung as we clambered to the exit.

Putting on the staff gas mask, I felt like Darth Vader. Why don’t passengers get them? I asked. Apparently they are reserved for those actually fighting the fire.

Statistics on how often there is a serious fire on a plane are hard to come by. A 2002 report, however, suggested that, from the time of the first indication that there is a fire on board, crew have an average of 17 minutes to get a plane to the ground. Whether the fire is in the engine, the cabin, or is hidden (the most dangerous type of fire, as the delay in confirming its existence may allow it to spread), pilots are advised to land the plane as soon as possible.

Passengers might not have a gas mask in the event of a fire, but cabin crew come up against nastier on-board challenges when they are least well prepared – including exploding coffee machines.

The UK Flight Safety Committee, an association of professionals who seek to improve commercial aviation safety, in March reported a note from the Aviation Safety Reporting System, a NASA body that reports safety incidents, that detailed an accident with an exploding coffee machine that took place in January 2014. The flight had to be diverted and a member of cabin crew received second degree burns to face and chest when they “lifted the handle of the coffee maker and hot coffee grounds exploded out onto my chest and face.”

Sick pilots

Finally, what would happen if the pilot was taken ill during the flight, and couldn’t land the plane? Late last year, Mike Gongol, an off-duty American Air Force pilot responded to the tannoy announcement: “'Are there any non-revenue pilots on board?”, and landed United Airlines flight 1637 on its way from Des Moines, in Iowa, to Denver, in Colorado. The pilot had suffered a cardiac event and now Mr Gongol was going to have to land the plane. British Airways said that for long-haul flights they have up to four people able to fly the plane on board, so should a similar emergency occur, passengers shouldn’t have to take to the flight deck.

Emergencies on planes are, thankfully, not an every-flight occurence, but if there's one thing worth remembering it's this: make sure you know where your lifejacket is.

The Telegraph, London