Editorial opinion: Videos and images of the tragedy that unfolded at Moscow Sheremetyevo over the weekend are truly harrowing. The landing roll of the Aeroflot Sukhoi Superjet that ended with the rear of the fuselage engulfed in flames cost 41 passengers and crew their lives as it seems many who were sat in the rear of the cabin were unable to move forward before they were overcome by the smoke or fire. One of the surviving cabin crew has already said that many passengers attempted to retrieve and take their carry on bags with them as they egressed from the burning fuselage, and that this slowed down the evacuation.
This is an age-old problem that is seen time and time again. No matter what the crew or pre-flight safety brief says, some passengers take their bags with them in an emergency. The reasons some travellers put their possessions ahead of their own and others safety are complex. Lets start with a near state of panic: flames, smoke, shouting, unfamiliarity with the unexpected situation. People don't always think through their actions on the spur of the moment, and reaching for a bag that contains their passport, credit cards, money, cellphone and laptop - the very items many people depend on today - is an almost natural reaction.
If it was just a small bag containing those most important of possessions it might not be so much of a problem - although delaying egress to retrieve even a small item from an overhead bin cannot be condoned in an emergency. But we all know that customers often take huge items on board, containing almost everything but the kitchen sink. Why do they do that? There are many reasons, not least of which is that most airlines now charge to check a bag into the hold. Keen to pay the lowest possible price, many travellers upgauge their hand bag and try to carry everything on board. This situation is not helped by the often slow delivery of hold bags to the carousels at destination airports, and the need to queue to check in a bag before departure. Theft from checked bags is also a concern, and although reports have become less frequent in the last decade or two it still goes on. Some authorities also have a reputation for taking a hard line with 'undocumented' travellers, even those who have just left the scene of an accident. Tales of already traumatised customers being stranding in immigration halls for hours - or more - encourage travellers to ensure they take their documents with them as they leave the scene of an accident.
So what's to do about it? Airlines hate reminding passengers about accidents but more and better education is undoubtedly part of the solution. Customers must be reminded that retrieving carry-ons to take off a burning plane is not acceptable. They should also be advised - well before they board a flight - to put essential items into a pocket or a small pouch that they keep about their person at all times. Its no good mentioning it once travellers reach the gate - they need to prepare before they even arrive at the airport.
These measures will help but the biggest problem is stopping people reaching for those huge bags in the overhead lockers. Some pundits have suggested locking mechanisms on the bin doors that could be activated for take off and landing, and in an emergency. But would that really solve the problem? Would passengers who are not thinking rationally because they are facing a terrifying situation just leave their stuff behind? Or would some of them still want to get into the overhead bins even if it meant trying to force the locks? Anyone standing in the aisle trying to gain access to their possessions is going to cause at least as much delay to an orderly evacuation as are those who take their bags with them now.
Other observers have suggested prosecuting passengers who take large bags out of the cabin during an emergency. Prosecute them for what? Manslaughter say some. It would be very difficult if not impossible to prove a specific passenger, with a specific bag, cause a fatal delay to those following. No airline wants to take its paying customers to court after a major accident anyway, no matter what happened during the evacuation - travellers who have been caught up in an accident have already been through enough, and dragging them through the legal system too not good PR.
No, the real solution is for airlines to put a stop the ridiculous the number of huge bags being taken into aircraft cabins. Aside from being potential impediments to swift evacuations, they are also a hazard if they drop from overhead bins as they can cause injury. The process begins with eradicating the charges for a first checked bag. Airlines need to make the first checked bag free again, even if that entails an increase in airfare to compensate for the drop in ancillary revenue. At the same time, the maximum size and weight of bags that can be taken into the cabin needs to be reduced to more reasonable levels, with items that are allowed on board being limited to those that can be sensibly carried about the person. Hard cases and rollaboards must be confined to the hold again.
Its not just airlines that need to make changes though - the whole industry needs to step up to the plate. Queues at bag drops need to be reduced, even if that means more resources. Handling agents need to improve the service they provide at destinations - half an hour or more isn't acceptable when many customers are time-critical. Baggage mishandling rates need to be reduced so travellers have confidence they will be reunited with their possessions at the end of their journey. And critically, theft from checked bags needs a very hard-line approach and it must be stamped out.
Commentators have wondered how selfish some travellers are when they reach for their possessions during an accident. People do not always think rationally in during emergencies. The loss of life in any aircraft accident is tragic, more so when customers may have impeded each other. But a big stick approach or leaving things as they are won't work. The industry needs to do all it can to ensure customers take into the cabins only essential items they need for the journey, and to make dropping large bags for transport in the hold the easy - or only - option again. Its often been said that nothing would happen with respect to huge carry on bags until someone loses their life over it. Maybe the time has come.
Text © The Aviation Oracle