Earlier this month, we learned that an Emirates flight from India had an emergency requiring passengers to quickly evacuate their burning plane at the Dubai airport.
All 300 people made it off the plane without serious injury, but as you can see in the video below, not before many passengers spent precious time grabbing their personal belongings from overhead bins.
One firefighter died while battling the blaze, and while it is not clear exactly how that happened, it does make me wonder, if the plane had been cleared sooner, would the fire have been smaller and easier to control by the time firefighters could move in?
Every safety video I have watched, every piece of advice I have heard from airline employees, every news piece on air travel emergencies such as this, has driven home the message that in case of emergency, passengers must drop everything and focus on remaining calm, listening to instructions, and exiting the aircraft as soon as possible.
If you have ever tried to board a bus at the ferry terminal, you know that people with luggage take longer to get on, move down the aisle, and get settled, than people without luggage. I know I’ve waited up to 10 minutes to get on behind these people, and I certainly don’t want to spend that much time breathing smoke in a burning aircraft waiting behind my fellow passengers while they struggle to get their extra sweater and travel pillow down from the overhead compartments.
I also don’t want to be stuck on the plane because the people ahead of me cared more for their carry-ons than my life, and punctured the slide with their belongings so it deflated before I could evacuate.
So, this led me to ask why people attempt to take their personal hand luggage with them when they evacuate.
Why would people do that?!?!?
The internet is full of speculation on this topic. The passenger who filmed the Emirates evacuation thought it was because they were selfish. This idea fits well with a “me first”/”rules only apply to other people” mentality. Others have pointed to a lack of air travel experience amongst the passengers or bizarre panic reactions. An Indian expat chalks it up to the mindset of people who value greatly what little they have, in lieu of basic rights as expat workers in the UAE. However, this dangerous mindset isn’t limited to foreign workers. Bag grabbing has occurred on all sorts of airlines in all sorts of regions. One study found that almost 50% of passengers try to bring their luggage when they evacuate.
The main reasons passengers gave for grabbing their bags was money, wallets, or credit cards, followed by work materials, keys. and medication.
Why people don’t need to do that
If you take away the other emotional reasons and look at the logistical fear of being separated from your belongings, you’ll see that for a lot of people, it boils down to not knowing what you will do without the basics of modern life, like money, ID, phones/computers, and medications.
I did a google search and couldn’t find much on this topic. So, I posed a few questions to some airlines, airports, emergency social service organisations, transportation and border authorities.
I quickly found out that there is absolutely no excuse for wasting time trying to bring your belongings in an emergency evacuation.
I asked about the hypothetical situation below:
Jane Doe is an Australian passenger flying from Honolulu to Toronto via Vancouver. Her plane has an emergency requiring evacuation by slide at YVR. She is required to leave everything behind, including her shoes, medications, and prescription glasses. She would like to continue her trip to Toronto, but now has no money, credit cards, or ID. She can’t read the signs at the airport without her glasses, and needs to take her medication with food within the next hour. She also has a minor cut on her foot from something she stepped on as she was evacuating.
Lauren, from Westjet, told me that they have a Special Assistance Team (SAT) that delivers humanitarian assistance in times of emergency. These corporate volunteers receive specific training to enable them to provide compassionate, emotional and physical support to survivors and families directly affected by an emergency.
She gave the example of a recent non-specific threat that forced the landing of a WestJet flight from Vancouver to Ottawa to land in Thunder Bay. Guests and crew were offloaded by RCMP, provincial police and local police. SAT Guests were temporarily sheltered in buses while the initial investigation took place. While on the bus, the SAT arranged for pizza, water and cell phones so that guests could make contact with loved ones waiting at home. Later, all guests were accommodated in a nearby hotel until they could board their flight the next day.
So, what about Jane Doe? According to Westjet, “If this type of emergency occurred, there would be emergency officials on site for the landing and emergency evacuation of all guests. Jane would be taken care of at that time by the medical team attending to the emergency. WestJet would activate our SAT to take care of Jane for the length of time required including helping her retrieve any valuables and ID, making arrangements for onward travel and helping get the prescription medication that she requires. Basically, the SAT boils down to this: whatever needs the guest/family of the guest requires during and immediately after an emergency, WestJet will be there to take care of. No duty is too big or small. These types of situations require someone to step in, take control and help with each guest’s specific needs and that is exactly what the SAT is trained to do.”
Reports on the EK521 passengers indicate that they were not left to fend for themselves either, but were at the very least offered hotel vouchers before their onward travel.
While passengers would mainly be the responsibility of the airline involved, James Bogusz, of the Victoria Airport Authority, contributes, “In my experience, when an irregular situation like this comes up, you will find that typically everyone involved will make best efforts to accommodate those impacted. Airlines and airports have emergency response plans that handle a variety of issues”. He also points out that they have protocols to call in mutual aid from fire/police/ambulance in the case of larger emergencies, and those agencies may call in emergency social service (ESS) agencies in the community if they are deemed necessary.
In some communities, ESS is provided by the Red Cross. Andrew, from the BC/Yukon branch confirmed that in the event they were called in, they would make sure that “people didn’t fall through the cracks” and would receive the assistance they needed.
In moving about the country, airport, and sometimes even a hotel, it is often necessary to show ID. I asked Transport Canada what happens for evacuated passengers who have left their ID on board. Daniel Savoie states, “Based on the circumstances of an emergency evacuation, airlines, airports, customs, local police and government security authorities would work together to provide an alternative means of identity verification.”
The Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) assured me that they would work “in conjunction with other law enforcement and emergency personnel to ensure the safety of all travellers, crew and staff and to account for them all. All individuals are processed to ensure they are admissible to Canada. To expedite medical treatment for individuals requiring immediate attention, they may be processed by the CBSA at a later time.”
They also pointed out that individuals could contact their consulates or embassies for emergency travel documents.
So, if our Jane Doe needed to go to the hospital to get her foot patched up, CBSA would not stand in the way of her getting proper medical treatment.
Returning to the Emirates emergency, the embassies, airport, and other local authorities assisted passengers in replacing their lost travel and identification documents.
So, your basic needs of food, shelter, and medical care will most likely be taken care of by the airline in conjunction with the airport and local emergency services. Your travel documents will be replaced. What about your luggage?
Westjet confirms that they would hold or send your luggage on to you, if and when it is possible to retrieve it. Each airline outlines their responsibilities for lost or damaged luggage in their tariff. You can usually find this information on the airline’s website.
In the case of EK521 passengers, Emirates went above their legal obligation in offering $2000 for loss of luggage, and an additional $5000 to cover any other damages. They were also refunded their original ticket purchase.
As one passenger put it, “See, our belongings are gone that’s no problem. Our family is safe. We have saved our life.”
In the event of an emergency evacuation, there is no valid reason to slow down the process and endanger your life and those of your fellow passengers, crew and emergency services by attempting to bring your personal belongings with you off the plane.
You will be taken care of and assisted to get where you are going. You may even be compensated for your losses, or have your belongings returned to you.
I recommend not travelling with irreplaceable possessions, backing up your phone and laptop frequently, taking out adequate insurance for your needs, and keeping your most important things on your person (in your pocket) while you fly.
Most importantly, I recommend remembering that your life (and mine) is more important than your carry-on. Replacing a passport may be a major hassle, but it is not a fate worse than death.