Emergency evacuation? Leave your laptop!

The images eerily blur together. The latest appeared in August, this time with Emirates Flight 521 in Dubai. But they resembled British Airways Flight 2276 in Las Vegas and Delta Flight 1086 in New York, both in 2015. Ditto Asiana Flight 214 in San Francisco in 2013. And Cathay Pacific Flight 365 in Shanghai in 2011.

Those inexplicable photos of passengers fleeing for their lives from smoking and even burning aircraft — while clutching carry-ons and shoulder bags, or maneuvering wheelies down evacuation slides. Such behavior is breathtakingly bizarre, considering that surviving some types of airline accidents has become statistically more common, as the new film Sully makes apparent. In fact, in an exhaustive study of domestic airline accidents over 17 years, the NTSB found 95.7% of occupants survived.

But what a hollow victory that so many spectacular aeronautical advancements have reduced deaths due to impact and smoke inhalation and fire — yet you still may succumb anyway, because your seatmate is struggling to retrieve a laptop.

Difficulty understanding

Over the years I’ve written extensively about airline safety, including best practices for how to enhance your personal safety margins, as well as properly securing infants. But amid all the hotly contested comments, I can’t ever recall a human factors equation defying all logic. Some have suggested these incidents are due to language or cultural barriers, but they’re occurring everywhere.

It’s best summed up by Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA: “Passengers stopping to grab their bags during an evacuation can be a matter of life and death for themselves and others around them. Flight attendants are trained to evacuate a plane in 90 seconds or less. Every second counts.”

Recently I ranted about wheelie-dragging survivors to a close friend and was stunned by the response: “You’re making too much of it. It only takes A FEW SECONDS to get your carry-on. What’s the big deal?” And that’s when it hit me. Otherwise intelligent, sensible folks offer the “few seconds” argument without fully understanding just how precious such seconds are.

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