Plane Truth on Evacuations


             New Orleans      Over the years, I’ve put a lot of miles on airplanes.  About a million and a half on United alone, along with hundreds of thousands on American and Delta, and then a bunch on random carriers around the world.   I listen and do what they say, but I also keep my eyes open to try and understand a bit about the planes and how different airlines and their staff’s work.  I appreciate the safety records of big commercial airlines.  I actually believe the statistics on why flying is safer than driving, and since I also drive a lot, I keep calm in the air.


I’m not going to lie, though.  I read the stories about doors flying off of the 737 Max Alaska Airlines plane recently in Oregon.  I read even more carefully the stories about the amazing evacuation of the Japanese plane after a Japanese coast guard rescue aircraft collided with it on the runway.  The coast guard lost all but one of their crew, but miraculously the entire complement of over 300 passengers and all pilots and crew safely were able to get out of the Japanese plane before a fireball engulfed and destroyed the whole thing.


I’ve long touted Zeynep Tufekci, the tech scholar and now sometime columnist for the New York Times, as someone I read religiously as a soothsayer for us all and a scold when needed for the libertarian bros.  In a recent column on this same subject, she provided her usual community service by showering praise on the efforts by government regulators and bureaucrats, airline personnel from top to bottom, and the entire culture of air safety from infrastructure to implementation.  She mourned for the dead, but took comfort in the efforts to ferret out the problems and had confidence in the outcome.  As always, she was completely right in all respects.


Unfortunately, there was one thing she didn’t cover that has troubled me since I first learned of the miraculous evacuation in Japan, and that was whether or not American passengers would be capable of that same calm, quiet compliance to achieve the same results, if faced with a similar situation?  I’m not sure.  Well, to tell the truth, I’m doubtful.  I’ve watched too many chaotic situations as passengers debark at the gates, as they push and shove and try to get position.  Given the entitlement at the front of the plane, how many would still try to grab bags and carry-ons?  If the front and back were exiting from the same chutes, how many would be willing to wait their turn?


I can’t forget the pandemic reports of incidents between crew and passengers on everything from masks to drinking, including actual violence inflicted on attendants.  I fear the cultural divide that has bred such division and mistrust in America now could easily bleed into a similar situation and infect the prospect of a smooth and successful Japan-style evacuation.  I’m not stereotyping the vaunted and much admired Japanese culture, but I am indicting the current polarization, everyone for themselves, devil take the hindmost, cowboys-all cultural issues of the contemporary climate in America that could make it unlikely that our behavior could yield a similar result.


Professor Tufekci makes the small point that perhaps American Airlines should do what Japanese airlines do in spending more time explaining the reasons for the safety procedures.  She’s spot on again, of course, but more needs to be done.  The initial briefing is rote now.  Many airlines show packaged videos with as much humor as instruction.  The crew needs to spend a minute or two with passengers sharing the lessons of Japan and elsewhere, so that there’s a chance among unruly, individualist Americans, we can saddle up more easily for the collective good of all, if we have too, when life and death is at issue, and an evacuation has to be completed for hundreds within the FAA’s required 90 seconds.  People should feel safe flying, because it is safe, but perhaps having more clarity about the risks, so that we all do right, would save lives with more education and instruction for the passengers?