The Word No Airline Pilot Wants to Utter

Thoughts from an airline captain on giving the command to evacuate.

Airline Evacuate

Closeup of an airline safety card showing how to evacuate in the event of an emergency

An NTSB study found that when the crew told passengers to jump and slide rather than sit and slide, it quickened egress.Alamy

If you ask a veteran airline pilot how many occasions he or she has given the command to evacuate an airplane during the course of their careers, most likely the answer will come silently with thumb and index finger forming a goose egg. The answer is a testament to the overall safety of our business. But that doesn’t mean an evacuation is an unlikely event.

I’m not exactly sure what prompted me to consider the evacuation subject for this month’s column. Perhaps it was the extraordinary Emirates runway accident in Dubai in August. Or perhaps it was a momentary thought, contemplating a rejected takeoff as our 777-300 blurred ­toward our V1 speed of 152 knots. Or perhaps it was my ­observations of passenger attention (or lack thereof) during the standard pre-departure safety briefing over the years. Most likely, it was all of the above.

Don't deny it. When the flight attendant begins with "insert the flat, metal fitting into the buckle," most of you resume progress on the USA ­Today crossword puzzle. I'm as guilty as the next passenger for the same inattention. The excuse: been there, done that, seen that.

OK, so forget the pre-departure briefing. How many of you have actually grabbed the safety card from the seatback pocket and read it? More important, how many of you have noted the nearest emergency exit to your seat and visualized how you would open it? Most of my nonpilot friends can’t even tell me the type of airplane they were flying on.

Don’t deny it. When the flight attendant begins with “insert the flat, metal fitting into the buckle,” most of you resume progress on the USA ­Today crossword puzzle.

Have you ever had the airplane disaster movie ­fantasy about an inflight PA announcement requesting the ­assistance of someone capable of flying the airplane, who would be you? It’s OK, you can admit it. I’ve had the ­fantasy myself. But honestly, your help as a knowledgeable pilot would be most valuable in your ability to assist during an evacuation.

Consider some background information. To operate a particular type of airplane for the first time, the FAA ­requires the airline to demonstrate an evacuation in 90 seconds, using only half the available emergency ­exits while simulating the ambient light equivalent of night darkness. To prevent injuries to volunteers during the demonstration, the FAA considers computer analysis in some circumstances. And sometimes within a family of similar aircraft, i.e., in the Airbus A320, 319 and 318, a partial evacuation is ­allowed that involves just the cabin crew and no passengers. The partial demonstration must be completed in 15 seconds and must include the operation of the emergency exits and slides. These evacuation drills are completed in mostly ­ideal conditions: an intact and level airplane, an intact and handpicked cabin crew, operative emergency equipment, relatively knowledgeable passenger volunteers, and a scenario already anticipated.

Time for a reality check. Evacuations don’t occur in ­perfect environments. Recognizing a situation that requires immediate egress from the airplane is not always a black-and-white scenario. For instance, an engine fire that can be expeditiously extinguished by aircraft rescue and fire fighting (ARFF) personnel with no smoke permeating the cabin may not necessarily dictate slide deployment.

The rule of thumb many of us consider before commanding an evacuation is to ask the question, “Is it ­safer outside the airplane than inside?” We must weigh the decision against the probability that the evacuation itself will incur injuries. ­Regardless, it’s a question that has to be answered decisively in short order.

Time for a reality check. Evacuations don’t occur in ­perfect environments. Recognizing a situation that requires immediate egress from the airplane is not always a black-and-white scenario.

The NTSB completed a study in June 2000 that ­involved 46 evacuation events, 2,651 passengers, and 18 aircraft types between the years 1997 and 1999. Most of the evacuations were classified as incidents rather than accidents, the most notable being the American Airlines MD-80 overrun crash in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Assuming the study was a good representation of evacuation events, a common denominator emerged. With few exceptions, it was a first-time experience for both passengers and crew. That’s a significant element to consider, in that a crew member’s training will be one of the most important facets in dictating the successful escape from a potential life-or-death situation.

Pilots are task-saturated with the mechanical variables of an emergency involving an evacuation from within the confines of the cockpit, while flight attendants must incorporate their tasks with the variables of human behavior from within a long, metal tube — a daunting challenge.

From the NTSB study, it was discovered that the ­majority of evacuees had paid minimal attention to the ­pre-departure safety briefing. Most hadn’t read the ­safety-briefing card or determined the nearest exit to their seat, let alone considered how to open the exit. Even the majority of passengers seated in an emergency-exit row who had agreed to assist in an evacuation through the typical semiprivate compliance briefing hadn’t read the safety card, which offers graphical instruction on exit opening.

Airline Evacuate

Closeup of an airline safety card showing how to evacuate in the event of an emergency and using the chute as a floatation aid

How many passengers actually read the safety card found in the seatback pocket?Alamy

Another discovery of the study was the technique to use an evacuation slide. Airlines that trained cabin crew to command “sit and slide” actually slowed the process. In contrast, airlines that trained flight attendants to command “jump and slide” increased the rapidity of egress.

One of the significant egress considerations from the NTSB study was conveyed to pilots through each airline’s POI (principal operations inspector). The consideration involved the captain’s decision to block an exit through a verbal evacuation command over the PA. For example, if a right-engine fire dictated an evacuation, it was acceptable during our simulator training to instruct passengers “use left-side exits only” or “don’t use right-side exits.”

But, unless an exit exposed evacuees to an immediate and obvious hazard, the study found that blocking an exit put all passengers at risk by slowing the evacuation flow. Besides, flight attendants are intensely trained to assess all exits. In most circumstances, eyes on the situation are better than an indication in the cockpit.

Airlines that trained cabin crew to command “sit and slide” actually slowed the process. In contrast, airlines that trained flight attendants to command “jump and slide” increased the rapidity of egress.

Another point to consider is that even though the ARFF folks are amazing professionals, not all of them have been trained on the specific airplane involved with an evacuation. Although most airlines are receptive, the carrier’s schedule makes it difficult to offer the ­emergency ­responders an opportunity to touch and feel a particular airplane model. Most times, ARFF training is done on ­fuselage mock-ups with the supplemental aid of actual aircraft configuration diagrams.

And last, no requirement exists for pilots and flight ­attendants to conduct a joint evacuation exercise. Pilots are trained in the operation of opening emergency ­exits (primarily, floor-level doors) during every recurrent ­training session, but that’s the extent of our evacuation exposure other than conducting the appropriate checklist.

What’s my point to this whole diatribe? I hope to never command, “Evacuate!” But if you’re unfortunate enough to be a passenger on that flight, I’d like to know that you’ve read this column. I’ll be counting on you.

And please, tell your fellow passengers not to drag their carry-on bags out the exit. My flight attendants give you full authority to slap the hand of anyone attempting to open an overhead bin. Such passengers risk the lives of everyone else by impeding the process. Oh, and you might want to reconsider wearing flip-flops and shorts.