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Airline Safety

Your story on Feb. 8 regarding airplane safety hit home, but there is more to the tale. I recently took part in evacuation drills for the 737 Next Generation airplanes, and it sure changed my awareness.

All the things your interviewee said were true: keep your shoes on, spot the exit, pay attention to the flight attendants at ALL times. But if you are sitting within two rows of an exit, you bear a special responsibility. Notice, I say within two rows, either in front or behind an exit door.

Often, the first person to the exit door is not the one sitting next to it. They are usually too close to be of much use. To operate the door, they must unbelt, stand up, and STEP BACK far enough to move their arms and if they have to read the instructions at that point: there is no time, and maybe no light. Then they must pull the handle, lift the door, pull the door towards themselves, twist it 90 degrees, and have the presence of mind to throw it overboard. That is a lot to handle, particularly if you are inexperienced and confused by the noise and panic.

Often, it is a person in the aisle seat or even across the aisle who is the first to make it to the door. They actually have a better shot, as they can unbelt and get to their feet much quicker than when pressed against the cabin wall. They are already facing the door squarely, can see the instructions as they move, and can lunge at the door much faster than if they had to stand and turn around.

I understand that we have, on average, about 90 seconds to get everyone out of the cabin. Under those conditions, anything or anyone in our way should be THROWN out the door. Literally. The lights are out, the flight attendants are yelling "GO! GO! GO!", grabbing people to their feet, and shoving them out with what amounts to a well practiced karate move. This is no time for gallantry. Go over the seats if the aisle is blocked. Just get out.

I do wish they showed realistic evacuations in films, in schools, or somehow used the media to communicate just how serious this is. Every traveler should see this before getting on board. I don't think it would cut down air travel, but it would get a lot more respect for what's really involved, and for the training and capability of our flight attendants. If you have not been through such a drill, I recommend that you contact one of the airlines and do so with a radio crew.

Incidentally, I should point out that the new doors on the 737 NG will save something like 20 seconds of evacuation time. They don't come off at all, they are spring loaded and fly up when the handle is pulled. Boeing took a heavy loss in production delays by going to this new technology when they did, but it will prove worth it the first time it is needed.



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