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7 Tips for Staying Alive in a Plane Emergency

April 18, 2018
8 min read
Rear view of flight attendant indicating exits to passengers in airplane
7 Tips for Staying Alive in a Plane Emergency
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Tuesday's Southwest Flight 1380 is every aviation traveler's worst nightmare: engine failure. Broken window. Sudden loss of cabin pressure. A passenger who was "partially sucked out of the plane." A rapid descent followed by an emergency landing.

Is it safe to sit by airplane windows? Is Southwest Airlines unsafe, given all the recent diverted landings? One passenger from Flight 1380 even used the phrase "free fall" to describe his recollection of the descent. In situations of fear, it can be hard to know what to think, especially in this day and age of viral posts. What's a passenger to believe?

Heed facts and experts, not Facebook.

"Passenger accounts of abnormal situations (and normal ones, too, for that matter) are notorious for exaggeration, to the point where they are almost completely unreliable," says Patrick Smith, a Delta Boeing 767 First Officer and author of Smith, who was flying over the Himalayas Tuesday when news of the emergency landing broke, wrote a technical summary of the situation that discussed the rarity of such incidents.

When we hear that friends and family are hopping on a plane, we often tell them to "fly safe." At the end of the day, as passengers, control of the plane is not in our hands – but we do have control, and responsibility, over how we react in situations of crisis.

So what are the most important things YOU can do to help ensure everyone's safety?

1. Pay attention to safety briefings.

"Even if you think you know the instructions – and have heard them half a million times – each plane comes with new conditions," says Travel and Leisure. "The location of exits will be different. The seat lay-out will be different. The people on the plane with you will be different. Equally important is that you 'read' through that picture card in the seat pocket. It will have the most relevant information for the particular plane you’re flying."

Paying close attention to safety training is particularly important on airlines like Southwest, where seats are not equipped with video screens, said TPG resident flight attendant Carrie A. Trey. "On any airplane where you have video, you're actually being shown how to do it on the in-flight entertainment systems. On Southwest, where you don't have screens, you just have those two flight attendants."

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No matter what you're doing, it's far more important to take off your noise-canceling headphones, and give your hard-working flight attendants your full attention for two minutes. Their instructions might literally save your life.

And for that matter, pay attention whenever the flight attendants give instructions during the flight.

2. Wear your seatbelt whenever possible, even if the seatbelt sign is off.

You have a miniscule chance of experiencing what Flight 1380 went through, but you do have a reasonably high chance of encountering turbulence onboard any flight. Don't unnecessarily risk injury to yourself and others.

3. Take your exit row responsibilities seriously.

If you are seated in an exit row, be extra careful to pay attention to the instructions on how to operate the door. Your life, and the lives of your fellow passengers, are in your hands. If you are not physically qualified to assist, don't be selfish and think only of the leg room. Instead, opt for another seat where you can still stretch out without having to worry about this task.

4. In the event of an evacuation, leave all your belongings behind.

"We mean it. Do. Not. Take. Your. Bags. With. You." in the event of an evacuation, Carrie says, who stresses that Flight 1380's landing was not an evacuation. When in doubt, pay attention to your pilots and your cabin crew. "If one of the flight attendants had noticed anything threatening in the cabin, they would have started an evacuation on their own," Carrie says.

Think of how long it takes a typical plane to unload all of its passengers. Taking the time to grab your bags in an emergency could mean the difference between life and death for you and other passengers. The only thing you can't afford to lose is your life.

5. Know how your oxygen mask works – and why it matters. (Then take care of the people around you)

"Any time the cabin pressure is compromised, we have to descend as fast as possible because there's no oxygen up there," said Lisa Cannon, a former Air Force pilot who now flies for Delta. "We're trained on that."

Known as rapid decompression in aviation terms, the thinner oxygen levels of high-altitude air that Flight 1380 passengers and crew alike were exposed to can quickly lead to impaired judgment and unconsciousness.

Time of useful consciousness describes how long you can stay functional and alert at different altitudes without cabin pressurization. Source: Smarter Every Day

"In every airline training course I've ever taken as a flight attendant, they hammer this Time of Useful Consciousness information into us," Carrie says. "At 35,000 feet, you have 30 seconds before you pass out to get an oxygen mask on."

Oxygen is so important for clear thinking, in fact, that pilots always have their oxygen masks within reach. "When I go up to the cockpit to give one of the pilots a bathroom break, for example, the other pilot will always wear the oxygen mask or have it on his or her lap," Carrie says.

Do not attempt: Most passengers onboard Flight 1380 did not wear their masks correctly. Image from Marty Martinez via Facebook.

After seeing the image above, flight attendant Jordan Ramsey posted an exasperated statement on Facebook that has gone viral: "Please. Please. PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF EVERYTHING THAT IS HOLY, take a moment the next time you’re flying to pay attention to the safety demonstration, as it could save you or someone else’s life."

Every panel above each row has one extra oxygen mask, and flight attendants are trained to grab the nearest extra one in a crisis. (Carrie said this is also why only one lap child is permitted per row, because a second lap child would not have access to an oxygen mask.)

In a rapid decompression, you're going to feel a couple things, Carrie says: "Your ears are going to immediately pop, and there will be a massive whoosh of cold air, and the cabin will fog up. When all of those things happen, you probably think you're in a free fall when in fact, the captain is making a very rapid but controlled descent."

A modern airliner is capable of descending 20,000 feet within 90 seconds. However, most pilots will take the descent significantly slower unless absolutely necessary, to give a potentially damaged airframe less stress. Pilot Tammie Jo Schults took the plane down from 32,500 feet to 10,400 feet over a comparatively longer six minutes, according to flight data.

6. Unless you're qualified to help, stay out of the way.

People who are specially qualified know how to jump in without adding to the chaos, says Carrie. "In a situation like Flight 1380, if you're specially qualified – EMT, military, whatever – jump right in. Or if you're in the immediate area, and the flight attendants ask you to help. But if you're not genuinely contributing, stay out of it, and keep your cell phone out of it, yourself out of it. And if you have to question whether or not you're contributing? You're not."

7. When in doubt, listen to your cabin crew.

They're there to help, Carrie says. "In an emergency depressurization, it's going to be chaos – but if flight attendants have the time to make an emergency briefing, the first thing they'll do is turn off the Wi-Fi and entertainment to get everyone's attention. Lights all the way up, Wi-Fi and entertainment off." When that happens, do everyone a favor and pay attention.

"I believe the pilots and crew did a great job," pilot Lisa Cannon says. "Given several onboard emergencies – engine failure, rapid decompression and medical emergency – they handled the situation impressively, and accomplished a safe landing. It is so sad that there was one fatality, but had they not descended quickly, there may have been more. We train for emergencies one at a time. Given several, the need to prioritize which one gets handled first is a big deal. They did outstanding, and it's a situation I don't wish for any pilot to be in."

Featured image by Getty Images/Hero Images