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


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.

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.

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  1. The fact that we have these revealing and insightful photos, despite airline procedures typically requiring all devices to be stowed in an emergency, proves the point that the passenger’s behaviour needs to be taken into account when searching for the safest course of action to be followed in the event of an emergency situation.

    People tend not to follow instructions blindly if they do not believe the situation – as they perceive it – requires full unquestioned compliance (adherence to road speed limits are a prime example).

    So the question then becomes :-

    (1) – do we approach how safety instructions are communicated, differently ?
    (2) – do we redesign safety equipment, so that it adapts more closely to the need for use* ?
    (3) – a combination of (1) & (2) above
    (4) – other

    Whatever the answer, the suggestion that it is time to “do a deep dive into the Human Factors aspect of passenger behaviour” is a valid one.

    Currently we predominantly tend to limit our research to the 90 second evacuation exercise which takes place on the ground.

    * Sensors in the equipment detecting improper use and this being communicated to the user

  2. Roger

    The only time anyone gets to try masks, opening doors, life vests etc is in an emergency. At that point there will be shock and stress making it rather difficult to act calmly and rationally, doing things for the first time, It would be far better to get the safety briefing at the airport and be able to try the equipment, finding out how much effort is needed to opern doors, how flexible the masks are, pulling out life vests you can’t see, finding exits with your eyes closed etc.

    Even the evacuation bags issue is insane. It is drilled into people around aviation that you must keep your bags with you at *all* times. And to have your valuables in them. Then in an emergency you must to the opposite and not take your bags. And loose your valuables. Also note that the industry is completely silent about what happens to passengers after an emergency,

    It would be great if RGN did an article about what happens to passengers after an emergency. If I left a bag with a $2000 laptop behind and the plane was destroyed, am I compensated? What about getting documents like passports and drivers licenses (former can be rather expensive)?

    Remember that passenger experience is generally the airlines nickel and diming them, not really caring, and catching you out with various non-obvious rules. I can very easily see how in a emergency some people will be outright selfish, but many more reverting to instinct keeping their bags and valuables with them and expecting no help from the airline.

    • Richard Morin

      Are your laptop and passport more valuable than your life? How would you like to be standing still during an evacuation waiting for some passengers to clear the way out after they re done digging in the over head bin for some “valuable’ belongings. Just do what you are tell to do ! Leave everything behind and move!

  3. Matt

    Cabin oxygen masks DO NOT isolate from smoke or toxic fumes. They have multiple valves on the front and always deliver a mix of pure oxygen from the generator/bag and ambient air.

    • antoine

      Yes, right. Pax mask only protects against hypoxia during the time of an emergency descent following a despressurization event, not against fumes/smoke.

  4. Ann Marie

    Thank you for this excellent reminder. I think, for many people, it may be counterintuitive when in panic mode to place anything over the nose. When I was in nursing school, I felt very light-headed after my first few minutes during me first OR experience in large part because of my not being used to wearing a surgical mask. A mask can make one feel quite claustrophobic – even for someone like me who is not actually claustrophobic. Even CPAP masks induce panic in certain people. Your duck’s bill analogy is a great one. If the FAs did their demo and then proceeded to put on a big, funny looking duck bill for emphasis, people would remember that. I’m not suggesting that’s the solution but I consider myself very safety conscious and yet am guilty of tuning out the safety instructions at times.

  5. Scabbage

    If you can’t pay attention to something that is clearly beneficial in a life threatening situation then you probably get what you deserve if you don’t know how to put a mask on.

  6. Of the three people visible on the photograph NONE are covering their nose with their oxygen mask. I would suggest that the majority of persons on board would be the same….
    I showed my wife the photo and asked if there was anything wrong. She commented that it looked one guy was using his phone but nothing regarding the masks or the use. My in-house design staff, admin staff, office cleaner and almost everybody else here answered in a similar manner.
    So I suggest that the question : 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?

    Should read more about the equipment than the people. A conventional mask with a shape to fit over the nose and mouth is more familiar to most and the correct application is therefore more obvious.
    I am pretty sure that there are many valid reasons for the circular shape but it obviously doesn’t seem to work in the real-world.

  7. Andrew DSylva

    Just a thought… Knowing this was an emergency and that a passenger was almost sucked out of the aircraft the crew should have cut off the WiFi access to cut out all distractions and have the passengers listen to the crews instructions. Agreed that during such a time everyone would be wanting to get in touch with their loved ones but should it be at the cost of their own safety? Yes I agree that the passengers human factors need to be studied by the authorities and realistic solutions be implemented.

    • Richard Morin

      I would say that the crew has more important things to do and that wouldn’t stop people from tying to get a connection or record the scene with their phones

      • Andrew DSylva

        The first priority of the crew is safety of all its passengers. No one can stop people from texting or taking a video or selfies. All I am trying to say is cut out whatever is in your hands like WiFi. On any day when on board an aircraft, during and even after the safety demo is given and an announcement is made to switch off your phone or put it in flight mode, you fill find people still texting and on calls. It’s just taken for granted as crew over the years have not gone around the galleys enforcing it. Do whatever is in your control!