When incidents like the Southwest Airlines engine failure on flight 1380 this week happen, many travellers are scared, nervous or apprehensive. That’s perfectly natural, and if you’re one of them don’t be ashamed — rather, be reassured that flying is safer than staying at home, that pilots and cabin crew are incredibly well trained for things like this, that like every incident there will be lessons learned to make flying even safer still, and that the aviation industry is 100% on the case.
By now, you might have listened to the air traffic control recordings of Captain Tammie Jo Shults, who happens to have been one of the first women fighter pilots in the United States Navy, calmly guiding her aircraft to land, together with first officer, Darren Ellisor. Captain Shults’ demonstrated professionalism is just one example of what we see across the aviation industry: airlines spend a lot of time making sure pilots know what to do in the case of any number of incredibly unlikely incidents. Hours upon hours are spent in simulators with senior pilots creating many scenarios that seem totally implausible but just might happen, so that they can practice what needs to be done until it’s second nature.
And incredibly unlikely those incidents are. Flying is incredibly safe: more safe than staying at home, and certainly more safe than driving to the airport. The aviation industry wants it that way — and even safer. Regulators are already requiring airlines to carry out extra checks of the kind of engine used on this Southwest plane, and airlines will do so gladly as we all learn the lessons of this event. One of those lessons is likely to be around how passengers reacted, which the aviation industry rather euphemistically calls “human factors”. With in-flight Internet connectivity, we saw pictures and video from inside the cabin even before the aircraft touched down at Philadelphia.
There’s been a lot of talk about the fact that what we saw in the cabin seemed to show very few of the passengers with their oxygen masks on correctly. These masks must be placed over the nose and mouth before — and many of you will be mouthing along to the words of many safety demonstrations — you breathe normally. These masks are there for a specific purpose: if the pressure drops suddenly in the cabin, the air is less dense, so there is less oxygen in it. While the flight deck crew will descend the aircraft to an altitude at which there is enough oxygen, the masks drop to deliver enough oxygen through your nose and mouth to keep you awake and alert. The key words are “nose and mouth”. If you just put the mask over your mouth, you’re not using it as designed. That’s why every safety briefing tells you to put it over all three of the airholes on the front of your face. Airline safety experts are already talking about the pictures we’ve seen, and whether they mean that action is needed to make sure people put the masks on properly.
Over the last few years, safety demonstrations have become snazzier, a little more entertaining, and in some cases an advertising gimmick. Regulators have standards that airlines must include in their demo that might include attention-grabbing dancing/puppets/surfers/dogs/the 1980s, and keep an eye on whether airlines are doing it right — whether that’s via a video, like most airlines, or manually, like on planes such as Southwest’s that don’t come with onboard screens.
You might have seen a lot of exasperated cabin crewmembers, aviation journalists and other folks who see and do a lot of these demonstrations emphasising the nose and mouth part of the deal. I know I’ve been one of those exasperated journalists during this and other events when people are doing one of the things that the demos tell us specifically not to do. Of course, it’s very hard to know how any of us would react in those situations, and it strikes me that many behavioural scientists within the industry will be looking anew at whether it’s a matter of telling people how to do things differently, or updating the way we do them — a reshaped mask, perhaps, or a streamer that says nose and mouth, or something on the seatback, or any number of options.
So what can passengers do in the meantime? Watch and listen to the demonstration attentively. Make sure you read the safety card — airlines aren’t just being weird when they say that every plane is different. You may even find it helpful or reassuring to watch the videos on YouTube and practice the movements before heading to the airport.
If you’re still concerned or worried on the plane, talk to your flight attendant. They’re often busy, but, as they often say, they’re primarily there for your safety. And if it’s getting on the plane that’s worrying you, a number of airlines and other groups operate courses that have helped many thousands of passengers get over a fear of flying. Search online or call your local airport to see what’s happening near you.
John Walton is an international aviation journalist, follow him @thatjohn.