Aircraft travel checklist: How to stay safe in the air
Concerned about the safety of your flight? Follow this sage advice from international risk expert Lloyd Figgins.
1. Never sit in a row more than five rows away from an emergency exit and always count the number of seat rows between you and the nearest exit.
2. Familiarise yourself with your nearest emergency exit and visualise how you would get there in an emergency (bearing in mind that there will be general panic and other people clambering to reach it as well).
3. Do not remove your shoes before take-off. If you need to get off the aircraft quickly or if there’s a fire, you will be glad of your shoes. Remember also to have them on for landing. Most incidents happen at take-off or landing. Avoid travelling in high-heeled shoes.
4. Always check the safety record of the airline you intend to fly with. If it doesn’t have a good record, choose another, even if it costs a little more. How much is your life worth to you?
5. Where possible, pre-book your seat. Statistically, the rear of the aircraft is safer and aisle seats will allow you to get out quicker.
6. Read the safety card and watch the crew’s safety demonstration.
7. Practise fastening and unfastening your seat belt a few times before take-off. Get used to how the seat belt works and feels.
8. Check to see that your life jacket is stowed where it should be. If it’s not there, ask for one. Airlines tend to carry spares.
9. If you are flying in a light aircraft, chartering an aircraft or doing bush flying, remember that safety records are poorer in mountainous areas, and also in Africa and Russia. Fly in daylight and in good weather, and don’t pressure aircrew to fly against their better judgement. Again, check the safety record of the company you’re thinking of flying with.
10. Have a small torch with you. An LED head torch in particular is very useful when travelling.
11. In an emergency evacuation, leave all personal belongings behind. Carry-on bags will slow your exit and create a hazard for you and others.
12. Don’t wait for others to move: many will be paralysed by fear. Get yourself out regardless of what others are doing.
13. During an emergency or crash landing, the cabin filling with smoke is one of the great dangers. You can be quickly disabled by smoke, so get down low and try to get out fast.
14. Listen to the instructions of the cabin crew and follow their commands. Their purpose is to protect you.
What to do if it all goes wrong
To research what actually happens in an aircraft emergency, I recently found myself on board an aircraft that I knew was going to crash – in a British Airways flight crash simulator.
The flight started just like any other. There were 23 passengers and three crew on board and we were given the usual safety demonstration as the aircraft taxied to the runway. The crew checked that our seat belts were correctly fastened, that our tray tables were stowed, our armrests were down and our seats in the upright position. The captain gave us some information about the flight and then said, ‘Cabin crew, seats for take-off.’
I heard the familiar increase in engine noise as the jet roared down the runway and then lifted into the air. There was a slight shaking as we left the ground but nothing I hadn’t experienced on hundreds of previous flights.
Within a few minutes, though, things changed – very quickly.
One of the passengers shouted, ‘Fire! There’s a fire!’
I first realised there was something wrong when one of the passengers shouted, ‘Fire! There’s a fire!’ I noticed that there was smoke in the cabin – and that it was getting thicker. Other passengers started looking around and hitting the call buttons above their heads. It was dawning on us all that we were in a metal tube that was rapidly filling with smoke.
A voice came over the PA: ‘This is an emergency. Brace! Brace!’ We did as we were told, placing feet flat on the floor and leaning forward to rest our heads on the seat in front, with our hands around the back of our heads. The crew continued shouting, ‘Brace! Brace! Brace!’
One of the passengers must have looked up to see what was going on and the crew member reacted immediately. ‘You, get your head down!’ she shouted. ‘Brace, brace!’
The aircraft was shaking, then it went very dark and I couldn’t see a thing. We seemed to have got back down to the ground again. The voice came back on the PA: ‘This is an emergency. Evacuate! Evacuate!’
The emergency lighting was just about visible through the dense fog. I couldn’t see the crew – I could barely see the passenger in front of me – but I could hear them hollering at us, ‘Unfasten your seat belts! Come this way!’
Before I knew it someone’s hand was on my shoulder guiding me towards the exit. Another hand was on the top of my head and a voice was shouting, ‘Jump!’ I was out.
The whole event had taken only a couple of minutes, from the time the smoke first appeared, through the emergency landing, to getting out of the aircraft. There had been no time to think: it was simply a question of survival.
Fortunately for me and the other passengers, all this took place in a simulator at the British Airways Flight Training Centre near London. The fact we all knew something was going to happen before we entered the cabin didn’t really diminish the urgency of the situation, and it set the scene for a day of training with British Airways’ flight safety experts. Between them the training team have countless flying hours under their belts. They are the best in the business at instructing regular travellers on what happens in an emergency and how you need to react in order to improve your chances of getting out alive.
The message that came across loud and strong was: pay attention to the safety briefing, read the aircraft safety card and listen to the instructions of the cabin crew.
The course also taught skills that most people don’t ordinarily get a chance to practise, such as how to open the doors of an aircraft in an emergency. The front and rear doors are simple enough: you just need to follow the instructions and keep the momentum of the opening door swinging outwards.
However, the over-wing exits on smaller aircraft are not so straightforward. The first thing to know is that they weigh just under 20 kilos (44 pounds) and you need to open them while you are still in your seat. If you (or whoever is sitting in the emergency exit window seat) don’t have the strength to lift that kind of weight whilst seated, you (or they) are in the wrong seat.
The next thing you need to know is that the door falls inwards, and if you don’t get your head out of the way, you are going to get hit by 20 kilos of aircraft door. You should also warn the people seated next to you to sit back or they will get clobbered too. You then need to have the strength to throw the thing out of the aircraft so that you can get out yourself.
Of course, before you do any of this, you need to make sure it’s safe to open any of the aircraft doors in the first place. Check that there’s not a fire just outside the window, and remember to unfasten your seat belt before attempting to leave the aircraft. All of this might sound obvious but try doing it in an emergency situation, when there’s smoke in the cabin, it’s pitch black and people are screaming.
It’s a widely known fact that smoke will kill you long before the fire gets to you, and a particularly fascinating part of the course was being taken into a ‘smoke room’, which is configured to look like an aircraft cabin. The thermostat is turned right up and smoke is released. The heat makes the smoke rise and if you’re standing you can’t see a thing. Down on the ground, though, the air is crystal clear. In a real emergency, keep down and follow the emergency lighting, and do so quickly but without panicking.
It’s also helpful to know what to do during a cabin decompression incident. You will do yourself a huge favour if you ensure that your seat belt is always fastened while seated. If you need any incentive, it’s worth pointing out that, if you’re not strapped in and something happens, you’ll end up floating around the cabin at best, and outside the cabin at worst.
Moreover, if the oxygen masks drop, you need to get one on as soon as possible. If you don’t, hypoxia will start to take effect after 15 seconds and you will be completely unconscious within 45 seconds. That’s why you have to put your own mask on before assisting others with theirs.
If you are unfortunate enough to ditch on water, it is essential to know – beforehand – where your life jacket is and how to fit it properly.
Finally, get to know the right technique for jumping down emergency evacuation slides. As with most things in life, there’s a right way and a wrong way. You don’t want to get this wrong, particularly since on some of the larger aircraft it can be a long way down.
Hold on to your clothing (where the collar of a shirt sits is a good place) and sit up rather than lying down. When you get to the bottom of the slide, move away quickly or else the next person down the slide is going to plough into you at high speed. Most emergency evacuation slides double up as life rafts, so be sure to stay attached to the slide.
British Airways has taken the initiative in providing flight safety awareness courses for ordinary people and I would recommend these courses wholeheartedly. There can be little doubt that the more people are aware of what happens in an emergency, the greater everyone’s chances of survival. Understanding how best to react to what the cabin crew are doing to manage an emergency is essential knowledge for anyone getting on an aircraft.
Hopefully you will now be more inclined to pay full attention to the safety briefing the next time you board a plane.