Air travel is regarded as the safest mode of transportation in the United States, with only 0.06 fatalities per one billion passenger miles. Despite the impressive safety statistics, many remain apprehensive about air travel – particularly the significantly disabled.
With more than 300 flights under my belt as a mobility impaired wheelchair user, I have often wondered if I could evacuate and survive a plane crash or other emergency event. A recent string of accidents in air travel encouraged me to investigate the procedures for the emergency evacuation of passengers with disabilities.
Last month, I reached out to the three largest U.S. air carriers (American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines) for information and comment on this story. American Airlines granted a telephone interview, while Delta and United failed to respond after multiple attempts. I also spoke with both active and retired flight attendants, who asked that I withhold their identities.
Types and Causes of Evacuations
Airplane evacuations can be characterized as either planned or unplanned; each present varying levels of risk to passenger safety.
In a planned evacuation, the flight crew recognizes an issue with the aircraft that requires an emergency landing. Passengers will be given advance notice to prepare for evacuation. An example of a well-executed, planned emergency landing and evacuation is that of JetBlue Airways Flight 292, which landed safely in Los Angeles after a nose gear malfunction in 2005. The 140 passengers and 6 crew disembarked the aircraft, and there were no reported injuries.
Unplanned evacuations take place after an unexpected event jeopardizes the integrity of the aircraft and the safety of those onboard. The 2013 crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 occurred without warning, as the aircraft made what appeared to be a normal approach into San Francisco International Airport. The main landing gear and tail section of the Boeing 777-200ER struck the seawall short of the runway, causing the aircraft to break apart as it impacted the landing field. Fire broke out, and the passengers evacuated through the emergency exits (with slides) and through a hole left by the missing tail section. 304 of the 307 passengers and crew survived the accident, with 187 sustaining some form of non-fatal injury.
While the crash of Asiana 214 was a significant and deadly event, unplanned evacuations can also occur in situations that are not inherently catastrophic. Take US Airways Flight 445 as an example. After landing at Denver International Airport in 2015, the aircraft’s cabin filled with smoke. Passengers were evacuated safely using the slides, and it was later determined that the smoke was not caused by fire.
One Airline’s Plan To Evacuate The Disabled
In all of the research conducted for this article, I have been unable to identify a single commercial aircraft evacuation in the United States that involved a passenger who was immobile due to disability. As a full-time wheelchair user, I board and deplane using an aisle chair. Given that I am unable to stand, walk, or move without the aid of my power wheelchair, my evacuation can only take place with the assistance of others.
With that in mind, I asked American Airlines about their plan for evacuating passengers like me, in an emergency situation. It was made clear that “safety is our number one concern,” and flight attendants receive guidance on emergency procedures during both “initial training and annual recurrent training.”
A general safety briefing is given to all passengers prior to departure. This points out the location of the emergency exits, and provides information on using life vests, floatation devices and oxygen masks. Individualized briefings are offered to passengers whose disabilities make the standard briefing inaccessible (i.e. the visually or hearing impaired).
In the event of a planned evacuation, flight attendants are trained to enlist the help of a nearby able-bodied passenger, who will be able to assist the mobility impaired traveler. In an unplanned evacuation, the airline assured me that policy is to leave no person behind. Flight and cabin crew are instructed to remain onboard until every passenger has been evacuated, and the Captain is expected to be the last one off of the aircraft.
For passengers who are fully immobile due to amputations, paralysis or some other condition, flight attendants are trained in “multiple techniques of lifting and moving the passenger.” Just as with the boarding process, airline staff will ask how to best assist the passenger. Given that time is of the essence, a passenger’s “comfort would have to be put aside to get them to a safe environment faster.”
I asked if there were any circumstances in which the onboard aisle chair may be used to move a passenger to the exit door. While they would not rule it out entirely, standard procedure does not include the aisle chair, as it “could be a hindrance.” Each evacuation is unique, and American trains their flight attendants to “adapt to different situations and passenger needs” and to “determine the best course of action” with due haste.
Flight Attendants Discuss Their Training
I reached out to 5 different active or retired flight attendants from American, Delta and United, to gain more specific information about procedures for evacuating the disabled.
I received two useful responses regarding preparations for a planned evacuation. The first is from a Delta Air Lines flight attendant:
Prior to the emergency landing, the purser would speak with the disabled passenger to work out a plan and arrange the assistance he/she needs. This is all dependent on the lead time we have, but most planned emergency landings would give us enough time.
An American Airlines flight attendant reiterated what corporate had told me on the phone, but with greater detail:
If it were a planned evacuation (we knew in the air we would have to evacuate on the ground, and had time to prepare the cabin and the passengers), I would ask for an able bodied passenger (ABP) to volunteer to move to a seat near a disabled passenger and help them exit the aircraft – The same way I would ask an adult to watch after an unaccompanied minor.
We already reseat ABPs closest to the exits to assist other passengers on the ground, so this would be an easy next step, time permitting.
While the ability to plan for an emergency landing and the subsequent evacuation is better for everyone aboard, that is not always a possibility. In an evacuation necessitated by an unexpected emergency, flight attendants will have to think on their feet and direct the evacuation with little to no notice. Passengers with disabilities may be the last to receive assistance, as an American Airlines flight attendant described:
After people have stopped coming to our assigned exit during an evacuation, we’re trained to go through the cabin. Assuming another passenger didn’t already help a disabled passenger exit, we would then assist them out. Specifically, we were told to either put our arms under the passenger’s to pull them backwards or to have them cross their arms over their chest and pull by their ankles (speed > comfort in case of fire, etc.). The FA responsible would be the one who got to them first, basically whoever’s door they were seated near.
A flight attendant at United Airlines seemed particularly driven by the “leave no man behind” mantra:
My duty is to make sure every passenger gets off the plane. I will do whatever I can to make sure the disabled passengers on my flight are safely evacuated. If I can’t do it alone, I will find someone else who can help me. If it is possible to get you off, you’re coming with me. Regarding the aisle chair-anything is an option. It would need to be reachable and available. Whatever will work in the fastest time. That’s what we are expected to do.
After having these conversations with American Airlines and flight attendants from the three largest U.S. air carriers, I feel a bit more secure. The flight crews looking after and shepherding us through the skies are aware that disabled passengers will need extra attention during an emergency. Airlines prepare crews for these situations through annual training and disability awareness programs. I was left with the impression that evacuating the mobility impaired will be an “all hands on deck” scenario, should the situation ever arise. While it is clear that I would be the last passenger off the plane, that is necessary for ensuring that the largest number of people are saved. Any attempt to prioritize my evacuation would slow the process, and could potentially endanger the lives of others.
If you are involved in an emergency landing or evacuation, whether planned or unplanned, I encourage you to discuss your assistance needs with the passengers around you. My personal worldview is centered on the idea that most people are good, and they will not turn away from another person in need. Don’t be embarrassed or shy about asking for help – not when your life depends on it!
Should a better plan to evacuate the mobility impaired be in place?
What safety concerns do you have with air travel?
Have you or someone you know been involved in an airplane evacuation?
Please share your thoughts in the comments below!