Thursday, January 22, 2009

Lessons From Flight 1549

LAST Thursday evening, as Kevin Leibel settled into his seat on an American Airlines regional plane about to take off from St. Louis to Raleigh, N.C., he did something he had rarely done in the past: He actually paid close attention to the safety procedures being recited by the flight attendant.

It was less than four hours after US Airways Flight 1549 had splashed down in the Hudson River, with all passengers and flight crew eventually rescued, and which Mr. Leibel had watched with some amazement on the large-screen televisions in the Admirals Club at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. “The conversation in the room centered on how we all wanted to know if the passengers sitting in the emergency exit really knew what they were doing,” Mr. Leibel, a frequent flier from Chapel Hill, N.C., recalled.

So when his flight to Raleigh boarded for its 6:30 p.m. Central time takeoff, Mr. Leibel took his seat, 11C, in an emergency exit row and scanned his surroundings closely. “I did look at my row mates — one solo seat across the aisle and another seat next to mine — and briefly considered how they might perform,” he said.

Mr. Leibel was not alone. Interviews with several passengers and flight attendants who flew in the hours and days after the Hudson River crash suggest that passengers’ awareness of their surroundings, and what to do in a possible emergency of their own, was at a height few had ever experienced before.

“It was the first time I can remember when everyone paid attention to the safety announcement,” said Matt Davidson, an executive at a plastic injection molding company from Lake Forest, Ill., who flew from Chicago to Denver on Saturday. “Also, I and others around me checked for the red life-vest tab under the seat. The United attendant announced that infant life vests were available. I’ve never heard that before.”, which sells a child safety harness for use on planes as an alternative to a car seat, reported a spike in visits to the site. “Apparently a lot of folks took a look at the crash and perhaps have travel coming up with their child and thought, ‘I need that,’ ” Lisa Orman, a spokeswoman for the site, wrote in an email message.

It wasn’t just the passengers who were on increased alert. Flight attendants also found themselves reliving the details of the US Airways crash, and reminding one another of what they had learned in training programs of their own.

“After the miracle-on-the-Hudson incident occurred, I started trying to imagine what I would have done,” said Debby Gravitt, a veteran flight attendant with American Airlines. “The first thing I did was get out my in-flight manual and study the ditching portion of the 757, which I am currently flying. Those flight attendants had to immediately pull everything from memory while maintaining calm.

“We have a 30-second review we are supposed to do in our heads before every takeoff, and we are supposed to pick out which two passengers we would choose to use to aid us in our emergency landing,” she added. “Without a doubt, I plan to do this every time from here on.”

And for passengers and flight crew members alike, the important role of people who sit in the exit rows was reinforced. Mr. Leibel, for one, found himself questioning the long-standing policy that those exit-row seats, with their extra legroom, often go to frequent fliers, as a perk, or are even sold by airlines like Virgin, Northwest and JetBlue, to passengers who are willing to pay a bit more for the extra space. “The competence of the passenger is never considered, and the screening questions online are a joke,” Mr. Leibel said.

Accounts of the evacuation of Flight 1549 indicate that one of the key reasons the passengers were able to escape was that a man, only identified in previous reports as Josh, followed the instructions printed on the laminated cards in the emergency exit rows.

Josh apparently had read the card and knew how to open the emergency door. When someone tried to pull the door in, The New York Times reported last week, Josh stepped in and, according to one of the thankful survivors, said: "‘No, you’ve got to throw it out.’ He twisted it and threw it out.”

Not everyone was as clear-thinking during what some passengers described as the “controlled chaos” of the evacuation, stopping to snatch bags from the overhead bins.

“That’s one of the things you constantly hear about,” said Lonny Glover, safety and security coordinator for the flight attendants union at American Airlines, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, who has debriefed passengers involved in accidents. “How things were slowed down because a passenger is reaching up to take a suitcase or laptop out of the overhead bin.”

Flight crews are trained to guide passengers in an emergency with calm but direct commands: Unfasten seat belts! Come this way! Don’t take anything with you!

In the case of Flight 1549, it appears the pilot expertly handled the emergency river landing, and flight attendants did their best to keep passengers calm while quickly evacuating the aircraft.

In a water landing, flight attendants are taught never to open the rear door because it could sink the plane. Indeed, some passengers who were at the back of Flight 1549 reported flooding nearly up to their necks. The flooding would have been much worse if one of the flight attendants onboard had not stopped a passenger from opening a rear door and letting in a gush of water, according to a report by The Associated Press.

The Federal Aviation Administration mandates that every crew member receive training in so-called ditching, or emergency water landings. Instruction must be specific to the aircraft and safety equipment onboard.

But the number of hours dedicated to training and the type of drills can vary from airline to airline. For example, some flight attendants are trained to fly both domestic and international routes. American Airlines flight attendants review ditching procedures each year during recurrent training at the company’s headquarters in Fort Worth, Tex., including use of flotation devices and what to say and do to evacuate the plane safely. But only American’s international flight attendants, who typically fly on aircraft outfitted with life rafts, flares and other emergency equipment designed for survival in large bodies of water, get into a pool and practice inflating and boarding a raft.

For passengers, Mr. Glover recommends the following safety tips:

Pull out the emergency briefing card in the seat back pocket and review it. “Most passengers unfortunately feel they know their own surroundings and have been on the planes frequently. This time the plane may be changed to a different type. The exits may be located in a different area and may operate differently than the ones you are used to.”

When you sit down, count the number of rows or seats to your nearest emergency exit — in front and behind. “If the plane is damaged or filled with smoke and you need to get out, it could be a very chaotic environment in the cabin. It is best to know how many rows you may need to go in the dark cabin to get out. Also, the exit closest to you or the one you boarded through could be blocked. Know where the next available one is and how close it is. It could be right behind you.”

In a smoke-filled cabin, breathe through a piece of your clothing. “Cover your nose and mouth with a piece of your clothing to filter out the smoke.”

During an emergency evacuation, leave your carry-on luggage behind. “Passengers trying to remove luggage from the bins in an emergency are taking up precious time to evacuate. You are blocking the aisle and delaying others trying to evacuate. Studies show everyone has approximately 90 seconds to get out. Key here: Which is more important — your laptop, your suitcase or your life? It’s an easy choice.”

Published: January 20, 2009

Article source: The New York Times

1 comment:

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