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In-Flight Emergencies - What You Need To Know

(Updated August 2, 2005)

In light of today's Air France accident this article is a must read.

Air travel is one of the safest modes of transportation out there. Believe it or not, your odds of being in a fatal airplane accident are one in nine million. Still, this is no reason to take in-flight safety lightly. It is important to consider the unthinkable question, "What would I do if I were in an airplane accident?"

My 12 years as a flight attendant have prepared me for the worst. In training, I experienced what it was like to be in a dark, smoke-filled cabin, and I can tell you first hand - it is very scary. Flight attendants are trained to get you out, but what if a flight attendant couldn't help you? Would you be able to get out on your own?

Whether you are a very frequent flier, or just an occasional flier, you need to take responsibility for your own safety. One of the most important things you can do as a passenger is to make time to familiarize yourself with the aircraft. That includes taking the time to read the safety instruction card in the seat pocket in front of you, and paying attention to the flight attendants during the safety demonstration.

Taking responsibility for your own safety is vital. If you should find yourself in an emergency situation without a crew member to assist you, your survival may come down to knowing the very details that were shown in the safety demo and the safety instruction card. Eighty percent of accidents occur during take-off or landing - the most critical phases of the flight - so get acquainted with your aircraft configuration as soon as you get on board.

Take into consideration that every airplane is different. For example, if you fly a 757-200 on American Airlines, that doesn't necessarily mean that all 757-200's have the same cabin configurations. A United Airlines 757-200 may have fewer seats, and thus, the emergency exits would be located in different rows.

If you ever found yourself in a dark, smoke-filled cabin, would you be able to find your way out before toxic smoke and fumes overcame you? This has happened to very experienced fliers in the past, with fatal results. What you know can help increase your chances of survival:

  • When you get to your assigned seat, locate your closest exits. Visually go through where your seat is in relation to the closest exits. Are the exits in front of or behind your seat? What exit are you closest to, and how far are you from your secondary exit? How many seat rows are you from your closest and secondary exit? Mentally count the number of seatbacks to each exit. Why? If you cannot see due to a smoke-filled cabin, you will need to feel your way out. Knowing the number of seatbacks to the exit can save your life. Make a mental note of all these exit details.

  • Look at your safety instruction card and see how each exit operates. Are the exit doors equipped with slides, hatches, or tailcone exits? The safety instruction card will provide details about their operation. Remember, not all doors open outwards. Some have open inward, upward, or downward into the fuselage. Some exit handles pull up, down, or rotate left to right. To operate one of these doors in complete darkness, it is important to know which way the door handle rotates.

  • Understand how over-the-wing exits work. These exits weigh between 38-70 pounds, depending on the type of aircraft, and can be tricky to operate. Over-the-wing exits detach from the aircraft and have to be thrown out onto the wing. The evacuation path is off the wing. If one of thess exits is used, it is very important to know what direction off the wing you will use. This varies upon the circumstances. In a land evacuation, you should evacuate off the trailing edge of the wing, meaning sliding down the flaps towards the back of the aircraft. In a water situation, you should evacuate off the leading edge of the wing towards the front of the aircraft.

  • Try to wear clothing that covers your body, such as slacks and long skirts. Your goal should be to cover as much skin as possible. The less you expose, the less likely you are to get burns or cuts. Wear clothing that is made of natural fibers, such as cotton and wool. Try to avoid man-made synthetic fiber clothing as it tends to catch fire more readily than do natural fibers.

These guidelines shouldn't scare you - they should empower you to feel safer by knowing what to think about each time you board an aircraft. The more you familiarize yourself with the airplane you are flying on, the better your chances are for survival should the unthinkable happen to you.

Related Sites:

AFA-Association of Flight Attendants

ALPA-Airline Pilots Association

FAA Safer Skies Agenda

Aviation Safety Network

Flight Safety Foundation

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