After SWA 1380, is it time for deep human factors study of emergencies?

Rotation

Images from inside the cabin of Southwest Airlines flight 1380, which made an emergency landing in Philadelphia following an engine failure, raise questions again about passengers’ comprehension of basic cabin emergency procedures and about passenger priorities during those rare times when their lives are at risk.

Passenger recordings from on board the plane show a number of passengers – including the person recording the video – holding their oxygen masks over their mouths, rather than stretching the oxygen masks to cover their nose and mouth completely, then tightening the elastic bands to keep the oxygen masks in place.

Regulations require that oxygen masks be fully reversible to ensure that, in a panic, people can put them on quickly. For this reason, the silicone cups that serve as a mask are perfectly round when first deployed. But these soft silicone masks are moldable to fit the face like a duck’s bill. They are flexible, adjusting to cover the nose and mouth tightly, to ensure the uninterrupted flow of oxygen. They are intended to be one-size-fits all, adapting to adults of all sizes, as well as children. Their conical shape allows for this variation in sizing. Like all cabin safety equipment, their proper use is intended to be relatively intuitive.

So how is it possible that a number of passengers on board wore the masks loosely so that they would have done an ineffective job of delivering oxygen, and could not have isolated any smoke or toxins from within the cabin had there been any?

Looking at the video posted from the flight, there was more than enough breathable oxygen remaining in the cabin for passengers to remain conscious. Under slightly different circumstances, we might have been watching a video of passengers losing consciousness.

In recent years, we have seen a number of evacuation procedures ignored during emergencies and evacuations. Much of the passenger reaction to these situations is baffling. It runs counter to their own best interest. People fail to keep their seat belts on in severe turbulence. They evacuate burning aircraft with their hand luggage. They use oxygen masks as little more than props.

Despite the danger, they stop to record the event for posterity – even when standing near an aircraft that is on fire and likely to explode.

It is too easy to dismiss this behavior as some form of contagious stupidity. One person ignores instructions and others join in, as part of a group response to crisis.

Rotation
In recent years, we’ve seen airlines get creative with emergency instructions – with entertaining videos and humorous announcements that now become as much of a marketing tool as critical instructions adhering to regulations. Perhaps making cabin safety instructions amusing, to get people to pay attention, is not paying off.

We cannot know unless there is a serious commitment to studying the human factors at play during these events. While the NTSB will do a thorough investigation of what caused this engine failure and closely examine the events that took place onboard, it may be time for a separate, dedicated study of passenger reaction and recall of instructions by human factors specialists.

Experts, airlines and regulators should have a dialogue and come to an agreement on the best way to ensure compliance with cabin safety instructions going forward.

Flying is still the safest form of transport. People take that for granted. But aviation must study this erratic passenger behavior before it leads to tragedy.

Related Articles: