So, you are going on holiday. Fabulous! You have packed your clothes for your two weeks away, you’ve bought your travel insurance, reserved a rental car, and still have a sore arm from getting the necessary inoculations and vaccinations.
But how much thought have you given to your personal safety on board the aeroplane?
If you answered “none” to this question, then you are part of the huge majority of air travellers who arrive at the airport blissfully ignorant of the potential risks attached to their chosen mode of travel.
Air travel is an extremely safe and efficient way of getting to distant places. Statistics seem to support this, including the oft-quoted “You are safer flying than you are driving in a car to the airport” Whilst this may have a degree of accuracy, the fact still remains that aircraft accidents do still happen, some of which are serious. With a little care and forethought, you can reduce your exposure to these possible risks, by taking some simple steps yourself.
So, back to my question. How much thought have you given to your personal safety on board the aeroplane? Or, to put it another way, when do you start thinking about your on-board safety? A week before travelling? The day before? When you are sitting in your seat, waiting to take off?
Modern airliners are generally very reliable, but there are phases of flight that are more dangerous than others. Interestingly, more aircraft accidents occur during take off and landing than at any other time of flight. This is particularly true in some of the less developed countries around the globe, where flight safety is degraded as a result of under-investment.
In the highly unlikely event that the aircraft should suffer a serious in-flight problem, an emergency landing may be needed, and it may be necessary to “abandon ship” down the escape slides. There may be limited time for the cabin crew to prepare you for doing this, so you need to think a little about the slides.
The slides are made of a very tough neoprene, and are inflated automatically should a door be opened once the aircraft has left the gate. Naturally, you will have been requested to watch the safety demonstration, and refer to the safety card, but the vast majority of you will have been far too busy reading the newspaper, and listening to your iPods to have done so!
The reason that I mention this here, is that despite the instructions to remove high heeled shoes, and to leave bags behind during a slide evacuation, some individuals still place more value on their laptop computer and their bottle of duty free than on their own lives, or those of fellow passengers!
Amazingly, during a fairly recent evacuation of a Boeing 777 in Houston, passengers were observed jumping down the escape slides carrying their wheelie bags, bottles, and other bits of variegated hand baggage. Selfish and stupid in equal measures!
You may then have to walk across broken glass and damaged suitcases once you get off the slide.
For that reason, you should consider what you would wear on the flight. Stout, flat-soled yet comfortable footwear such as Deck Shoes, Moccasins, Training Shoes, and Flat soled business shoes are a must. I recommend that you resist the temptation to remove these shoes and put on the in-flight socks until the take off and climb is completed and the aeroplane is safely in the cruise.
Approaches and landings carry a higher statistical risk of emergencies, so you should put your “sensible” shoes back on at the top of the descent. This is normally indicated when you hear the engine note diminish as the power is reduced, about 30 minutes before arrival time. You may also hear a passenger announcement from the pilots at this point.
I also recommend that you invest in a simple body belt, so that you can carry your passport and travel documents easily. Its more practical than carrying them in a shirt or blouse pocket, and it may save you being delayed if you do have to evacuate the aeroplane.
Those passengers who have footwear and a passport may be swiftly re-booked onto another flight. Those who don’t will probably have to wait for some time in the airport until their passports and belongings have been collected by airport staff.
Your last consideration before leaving home for the airport should be the rest of your clothing, and the material from which it is made. I recommend that you wear clothes produced from natural products, such as cotton.
These materials may burn in the event of fire, but they will offer you more protection from flames than man-made fibres such as Nylon, which is highly flammable.
Now, lets consider your flight. You have boarded the aeroplane, and have been welcomed aboard by a smiling Flight Attendant. Soft background music will be playing, and you will shuffle to your allocated seat. This is easy in a well-lit cabin.
Now imagine the same cabin, darkened, filled with smoke and full of passengers. Your ability to see will be severely limited. Therefore, you should count the number of seatbacks that you pass on your way to your seat. This will enable you to locate the exits in poor lighting conditions should you need to escape from the aeroplane in an emergency.
Once at your designated seat, you should stow your carry-on baggage in the overhead lockers. Nothing could possibly go wrong with this. Or could it?
This is an area for concern. The overhead lockers are not designed to carry very heavy items, yet passengers are often observed struggling to lift huge sports bags and holdalls, boxes, and even very heavy cases into the overhead locker above your seat.
In the event of a forced landing, these lockers may deform, resulting in the doors springing open, thus allowing the contents to fall on the passenger below – in this case you!
If you feel unhappy about the load in the overhead stowage, talk to a crewmember and ask, or even insist that the bag is removed from the overhead, placed in another locker, or put in the aircraft hold.
Now, before you sit down, you should use the opportunity to have a quick check of the area around your seat. Find the lifejacket stowage, and check that there is a lifejacket in it!
It may surprise you, but it is a sad fact that every summer, I witness passengers walking off aeroplanes with life jackets stuffed in their hand baggage. Not only is this a criminal act, it is also a very selfish one, bearing in mind that the jacket is safety equipment, and could potentially mean the difference between survival and death.
It is a legal requirement that a life jacket is available for each seat, and the aircraft will not depart until you have one – even if the only water you will fly over is the Manchester Ship Canal!
Most reputable European, North and South American and Australasian airline’s aircraft engineers will always check that every seat has a life jacket before the aircraft operates its first flight of the day. However, you may be flying on the third, sixth, or even the twelfth sector, so its always possible that someone has stolen the jacket as a souvenir since the engineering safety check.
Furthermore, you may be flying to a remote region on a carrier operated by a small and under-developed country. There is no guarantee that these checks have been performed, so you should take a peek to make sure that you have a lifejacket.
Once the aircraft is safely away from the gate, and starts taxying to the runway, the safety demonstration commences. This will consist of either a pre-recorded film, or a demonstration given by the cabin attendants.
I strongly urge you to watch the film or demonstration. You may be a regular traveller on a Boeing 737, or an Airbus, but each airline will have a different seating layout, different emergency lighting systems, and different types of safety equipment, so assuming that you don’t need to watch the demonstration is dangerous complacency.
Numerous safety items are covered on the safety demonstration; how to fasten and release your safety belt, how to use the drop down oxygen masks, and how to fit and secure a life jacket. You will also be advised to read the safety card, which will either be contained in the seatback pocket, or in some cases, riveted to the seatback in front of you.
The reason that you are instructed to read the safety card, is that it will contain information that the safety demonstration doesn’t cover. This will include how to open the doors and emergency escape hatches, and how to adopt the correct “brace” position in the event of making an emergency landing.
Pulling this card out to read it as the aircraft is skidding to a stop in a field is a little late in the day – so please read the information on the card whilst you are taxying out.
You may feel justified in ignoring the safety demonstration for numerous reasons. I was recently presenting a safety course and I asked a frequent flyer why she chose to ignore the demonstration. Her response was a common one: “It’s a bit patronising – any fool knows how to fasten a safety belt” Her frequent flyer colleagues all nodded their agreement.
Most passengers will be highly familiar with the operation of a seat belt, as they use one every day whilst driving the car. Think about where the belt release is. Its down by your hip.
Now, where is the belt fastener on an aeroplane? Its in the middle of your stomach.
Bodies have been recovered from wrecked aircraft, bearing trauma wounds to the hips, where the victim’s hands have been scrabbling to find the belt buckle that was in fact sitting in the middle of their stomach.
Some of these individuals survived the crash, only to be suffocated in smoke because they were unable to undo their seatbelts. Reviewing the operation of the seatbelt in the safety demonstration is done to remind passengers that the belt is different to the ones that they may be more familiar with.
You will also be shown how to put on and use the cabin emergency oxygen system.
Aircraft are pressurised to give a comfortable environment similar to normal air pressure at about 8,000 feet.
Very occasionally a fault may cause a drop in cabin pressure, and the air may become too thin to breathe comfortably. Therefore, oxygen masks will automatically drop from cubbyholes overhead each passenger seat. It is important that you put the mask on quickly, as it is possible to lose consciousness for a brief period if you don’t.
Many aircraft use chemical oxygen generators to produce oxygen, as it saves the requirement to carry large metal tanks. When activated, these generators combine two chemicals to produce oxygen, which is then delivered by a plastic tube to the mask. A by-product of this reaction is heat.
The generators are located in compartments built into the overhead lockers. Over time, they will be covered in a layer of dust. This dust heats up, and creates the smell of burning. This may create panic, as some passengers will assume that the aircraft is on fire.
So, what may happen in reality?
You may feel a slight popping in your ears and the cabin may start to become quite chilly. This is to be expected if the cabin altitude is rising. At some point the safety systems will detect the falling pressure, and the oxygen masks will automatically drop out of their stowages under the overhead lockers.
You may hear a pre-recorded passenger announcement that reminds you to put your mask on, and informs you that an emergency descent has been started.
If you have paid attention to the safety demonstration, you will have already grabbed the nearest mask, and will have put it on. The air flows as soon as the rubber tube is pulled.
Don’t worry about pulling the mask out of its connection to the air supply – the rubber tube is very strong and secured very tightly, and you do need to pull the mask firmly in order to start the oxygen flow.
Whilst this is going on, the Pilots will be doing their emergency drills. They will have donned their masks, and will have immediately put the aircraft into a fairly steep descent to get the aircraft quickly to an altitude where the air is breathable.
Modern aircraft wings are designed to create as much lift as possible, but lift is now the last thing that is needed. The pilot will have extended the speed brakes, which are large hydraulically operated panels located on the top surface of the wing.
Once these are lifted up into the airflow, they interfere with the lift, and the rate of descent is now much faster. They also cause some turbulence and noise, and this may add to the sense of alarm in the cabin.
However, you must remember, that the apparent feelings of being in extreme danger are deceptive, and whilst this is an emergency situation, you will be quite safe. Aircraft depressurisation is practiced by the crews regularly in the flight simulators, and is relatively easy to handle and resolve.
The last item that is normally demonstrated is the use of the lifejacket. Lifejackets are generally similar in operation regardless of manufacturer or airline. They will be simply placed over the head, and either tied around the waist with canvas cords, or secured with nylon webbing and plastic snap fasteners.
They are inflated by pulling a toggle on the front of the jacket, which discharges a CO2 cylinder into the jacket.
Although lifejackets are designed to have no “inside” or “outside” they are best worn with the CO2 cylinder outside, as the metal cartridge becomes very cold after discharging the gas, and may cause burns if left touching the skin. It is imperative that jackets are not inflated inside the aircraft cabin, as they will either get ripped, or will cause obstructions in a densely packed cabin.
Should you forget this, and fire your jacket early, you may deflate it easily by unclipping the inflation tube (the one that is normally used for topping up the jacket by mouth) and pushing your finger into the tube end. Inside is a Schrader valve similar to that used on a car tyre. Simply press the stud in the middle and compress the jacket to deflate it. Once outside the aircraft cabin, two or three deep breaths should re-inflate the jacket to the point where it will support you in the water.
If you are instructed to put on your lifejackets, then there will be an element of panic throughout the cabin. I strongly suggest that after you have donned your jacket and tied or buckled it up, you briefly release your seat belt and stand up!
It will be too late to discover that you have tied the jacket (and yourself) to either the seat frame, or your fellow passengers once the aircraft has ditched. Doing this ensures that the jacket is secured, and that you can still exit the aircraft when required to!
Aircraft typically have an approach and landing speed of anything from 150 knots (130 mph) to about 120 knots (105 mph) but in an abnormal or emergency situation this could be higher. As you will appreciate, under the rapid deceleration of an emergency landing, anything not secured in the cabin will become a projectile, and will travel through the cabin at very high speed. This will include unsecured items of hand baggage, food carts, and other pieces of aircraft equipment.
Aircraft structures are designed to withstand loads of up to nine times normal gravity, but under a crash landing scenario, these limits may be exceeded, and the cabin may start to deform during the deceleration.
The safety card will contain details of the correct brace position to be adopted should a forced landing need to be made. The brace position is designed to minimise the whiplash effects of rapid deceleration, and to protect the head from injury.
Some authorities suggest that bending forwards, and clasping your arms under your thighs will offer the best chances for survival. I personally prefer the brace position used by British Airways. This brace position is adopted by leaning as far forward as possible, and placing your hands over your head.
You should then place your feet flat on the floor, and move them backwards until they touch the baggage restraint bar under your seat. This will guarantee that your feet are behind the line of your knees, thereby ensuring that your legs won’t swing forwards under deceleration loads, and smash your shins into the seat structure in front of you.
I also suggest that although it is a natural tendency to interlace your fingers when you place your hands over your head, that you don’t do it!
If you are right handed, place your right hand on your head first, and then protect that hand by placing your left hand over the top of it. This will make certain that even if the baggage lockers above your head collapse onto your hands, you will not have all your fingers broken and will still be able to unfasten your seat belt, and still have the use of your good hand.
Taking your dream holiday trip of seeing Orang-Utans in the wilds of Borneo or Indonesia, may well involve a considerable amount of flying with air carriers of dubious or unknown quality. You wouldn’t travel without insurance or vaccinations – so surely investing fifteen minutes to watch and understand a safety demonstration is time well spent!
Now, its time to take a reality check.
According to the UK Civil Aviation Authority, during the period from 1992 – 2001, UK airlines carried 802 million passengers with no fatalities! Quite an impressive record in fact.
The biggest UK Airline operates 285,000 flights per year. Over the last five years, they have only had to evacuate an aircraft on two occasions. These evacuations were only conducted as a safety precaution, rather than as the result of a cabin fire. This means that statistically speaking, you stand a one in 712,500 chance of having to evacuate an aircraft.
To put that further into perspective, The UK’s Health and Safety Executive estimate that the chances of you dying as a result of an aircraft crash are one in 125,000,000 passenger journeys. In fact, they calculate that you stand a one in 16,800 chance of being killed in a road traffic accident.
So, you are relatively safe in the air – but how safe are you once you check into your hotel? Do you know the risks? Have you thought about your welfare? This will be covered in a later posting.