It was fortunate that no passengers died. But a video circulating on social media shows how much more tragic the crash-landing of an Emirates plane at the Dubai International on Wednesday could have been. Despite the evacuation instructions of the cabin crew, several passengers can be seen looking for their carry-on bags, wasting time and blocking the gangway for others.
Fortunately, even as the aircraft was aflame, all the passengers and crew managed to escape in time. Fourteen people were admitted to the hospital later. However, a firefighter died while trying to douse the fire.
The flight had more than 300 people aboard – 226 from India.
“I did not have to think twice on what I should take – my bag from cabin or to take my 10-year-old son – when the crew asked me to jump off the aircraft in a minute,” Shahina Rashid, a passenger on the flight told the New Indian Express.
While Rashid managed to secure her passport that was in her handbag, she ended up losing many valuables. “Some of them managed to collect bags from cabin and jumped with it,” she said. "Now I don’t think anything would be left in the debris."
As the video shows, even a slight delay could have been fatal.
Not just Indians
This kind of inattention to instructions isn't specific to Indians, said Mohan Ranganathan, an aviation safety expert, but Indians do generally have a lax view of security when it comes to the risks of flying.
Safety demonstrations on domestic routes in India is “a bit of a joke” since most drills are carried out perfunctorily, Ranganathan said. Frequent fliers often feel complacent hearing the same thing over and over.
But inattention to safety instructions remains a concern everywhere. A flight attendant working with Fly Dubai airlines in Dubai said that no matter what staff do, safety is never a flier’s concern until an incident actually occurs.
“People sleep during the safety drills or just nod along while we work hard to tell them what to do during emergency situations,” she said, requesting anonymity. “It’s a little disheartening but more scary because so many lives are at stake and people are not willing to pay attention for their own.”
Another flight-attendant working with a domestic airline in India agreed, but added that many first time fliers who may have not had a formal education miss out on these safety instructions – because they are only in English and Hindi.
“The instructions are finished in about two minutes, much before a person can realise what’s happening in front of him,” she said. “It’s easy to ignore these things as people think what can happen in a two-hour flight but that’s the first form of negligence that we encounter and then it goes on to such a stage where evacuation becomes difficult because people don’t know what to do and they are now panicking.”
No baggage warnings
While all airplanes carry pictorial safety instructions in the form of a card on each seat and some carriers even carry instructions for the visually handicapped, Ranganathan pointed out that no airlines instruct passengers to leave their baggage behind in case of an emergency.
However, not everyone agrees that the fault lies with the way safety demonstrations are conducted. Captain Shakti Lumba, former head of operations at IndiGo, said that people will always rush for their baggage in such situations – no matter how good the safety drill is.
“They are all humans and we are born possessive about our stuff so unless there’s an inherent understanding that this behaviour is life-threatening for all passengers, people will still do it,” Lumba said. “Every second here is important but people don’t realise it. They think their personal belongings are more important because they won’t be able to get them later.”
Humans, he says, are hard wired to defy authority and the only way to make flights safer is to remove the possibility of even having luggage nearby.
“They should just do away with cabin luggage and it will solve many safety and security problems in no time,” he said. “If they can’t access the luggage, they won’t rush for it.”
But for that, airplane manufacturer and industry lobbies as a whole will have to arrive at a collective decision. Till the time that happens, people need to be careful about their lives and weigh the cost of their actions, said Ranganathan.
“Many of those on the Emirates flight were actually labourers and people without passports and documents are treated really badly on airports in the Middle East,” he said. “So their actions are still not correct, but we can perhaps imagine why they would end up behaving like this."