Understanding the behavior of an individual in a crisis is the first step to improving cabin safety
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Understanding how people react in extreme situations is fundamental to ensuring cabin incidents do not escalate.

Jonathan (JJ) Jasper, IATA’s Manager, Cabin Safety, reveals that IATA has engaged Coventry University in the United Kingdom—an institution that is fast becoming a significant contributor to aviation safety—to look at the human factors involved.

The study is still its infancy but, in the meantime, Jasper notes that it is already understood that several elements are at play depending on the exact circumstances. 

Many people take sleeping medication, for example, and some may have had too much alcohol.

This can significantly prejudice quick and decisive action.

Technically, an airline could prosecute a passenger for picking up their hand baggage in an evacuation 

These chemical impairments aren’t the only things that can slow passengers down, however. If passengers don’t see smoke or fire, the risk isn’t perceived—most incidents that involve an aircraft evacuation won’t have smoke or fire that is visible to the passenger. 

“So, they take their time,” warns Jasper. “And they often stop to pick up their baggage and take it with them.”

Technically, an airline could prosecute a passenger for picking up their hand baggage in an evacuation as they have failed to comply with instructions relating to safety. But clearly an airline will rarely, if ever, pursue such an action following an emergency.

Locking the overhead compartments simply moves the risk as passengers spend time trying to prise them open

That means there is no legal deterrent for the crew to fall back on. The remaining alternatives are all undesirable.

They include: throwing the bags out; throwing the bags back into the cabin; letting the bags through.

Each of these options can cause injury to the passenger and/or the crew member as well as slow down the evacuation rate. “Locking the overhead compartments simply moves the risk as passengers spend time trying to prise them open,” said Jasper.

And to make matters worse, some passengers have even taken to recording the event on their smartphone, ready to upload to the Internet as soon as possible.

“It all raises some obvious questions,” Jasper continues. “What can a crew do to make passengers listen to them in a crisis and what should a safety briefing include and how should it be delivered? It really is the most crucial aspect of cabin safety. What works, what doesn’t?”

Passenger reaction

The aim is to anticipate what passengers will do in any situation and have a solution that allows the crew to mitigate the danger and promote cabin safety.

The biggest component in this regard is the culture of the airline and the culture of the passengers.

Many flights are international now but there are still some dominant characteristics in many countries and regions that need to be acknowledged and handled properly.

The initial response of an individual is not within the crew’s control.

The aim is always to deal quickly and firmly with every incident to ensure the safety of the flight

IATA’s work with Coventry University is attempting to better understand passenger psychology but it is impossible to be 100% confident of every passenger’s reaction in face of an emergency—especially as airlines are flying upward of 4 billion people every year.

What happens thereafter is manageable though. “When taking bags or going too slow, for example, shouting at the passengers works surprisingly well,” says Jasper, who has more than two decades of crew experience behind him.

“It’s just not expected in a service industry for a crew member to shout at you and many people are shocked into compliance.”

Visual cues as well as shouted commands are used. Passengers often cannot see cabin crew operating the exits, but moving into sight and making bold gestures to accompany the shouted commands and direct passengers more forcefully are powerful tools in an evacuation.

The main problems the industry faces are that aviation demand and safety are at record highs

This also helps those passengers who don’t understand the language of the crew to realize what is needed.

“Cabin safety is about preventing cabin incidents from turning into aircraft accidents,” concludes Jasper. “The aim is always to deal quickly and firmly with every incident to ensure the safety of the flight.

“The main problems the industry faces are that aviation demand and safety are at record highs,” he adds.

“This wasn’t arrived at by chance. It is being continually worked on.

"And we will continue to work on cabin safety so that should the unthinkable happen, the crew and the passenger know exactly what to do.”

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