Emotional Baggage: Passengers Taking Their Bags During Airline Emergencies

Over the past several years, there have been multiple instances of air passengers retrieving their belongings before exiting an aircraft while under evacuation orders, despite instructions to leave these items behind. This has often brought swift rebukes from airline staff, industry professionals, media commentators, as well as fellow passengers. With the recent videos taken from inside Emirates Flight 521 as it was evacuated in Dubai last Aug. 3, this behavior is on clear display as numerous passengers are seen pulling luggage from overhead bins and carting them down the aisles towards the exits. Similar imagery is present on British Airways 2276 on Sep. 8 2015; with numerous passengers bringing their bags with them off the burning aircraft. The evacuations of LOT Flight 16, USAir 1702, USAir 445 were all captured on video, and all showing passengers with bags taken upon exiting.

This topic is not a recent phenomenon. A safety study completed by the National Transportation Safety Board in 2000 explained that the speed with which passengers evacuate themselves depends highly upon the actions of the cabin crew. However, many cabin crews surveyed by the NTSB revealed that their efforts are often thwarted by passengers insisting on retrieving their bags. Nearly 50 percent of passengers surveyed by the NTSB indicated they attempted to remove their bag during evacuation. Passengers and cabin crew on both United Flight 811 and Delta Flight 54 evacuating at Honolulu International Airport in 1989 and 1997 respectively, reported seeing some passengers engaging in this. This NTSB study further recommends addressing how to handle passengers who do not comply with cabin crew commands, as well as recommending that the FAA design advisory material to help air carriers minimize this problem.

Given that air carriers are mandated to evacuate all the aircraft in their inventories (from the smallest CRJ up to the mighty A380) in 90 seconds or less, there is a premium on ensuring that exit procedures are not impeded in any way. Passengers that insist on retrieving and carrying personal items to the exits in an emergency not only slow themselves down but threaten the escape of other passengers. People might have trouble immediately locating their belongings, bag straps can get caught around armrests, items with sharp edges can damage escape slides, impatient and panicked passengers could lash out at the person causing the delays…all of which add seconds to clearing the aircraft.

What is behind this dangerous behavior? Why would normally rational people cling to material possessions when lives are literally at stake? Can anything be done to eliminate this? Much has been written to document this phenomenon and send the message that it is unacceptable, with only a cursory mention of what could be causing it. Many seem less concerned with what initiates the behavior than with joining the chorus of people chastising these offenders, but this is problematic because without an understanding of the root of the problem, the probability of devising an effective, informed solution to it is diminished. This article offers the basics of such an understanding.

A wealth of psychological research examines the emotional effects that occur after a disaster, such as anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders. However, a separate body of research exists that looks at how people cope with emergencies as they are occurring, which is helpful in understanding the baggage phenomenon under review here. Perhaps the best place to dive into the psychology behind this behavior is by examining information processing under stressful conditions.

In the arousal theory of motivation, the “Yerkes-Dodson Law” states that people’s performance will increase along with an increase in stress up to a point, which is considered the optimal level of arousal for that individual, after which performance will become degraded. Attention (i.e. situational awareness) narrows as the field of cues to which one is attending becomes restricted; this in turn impacts information processing and judgment, which then degrades performance. Most people perform best under a moderate level of arousal; the chaotic environment of an airplane being evacuated under severe time constraints certainly qualifies as a high level of arousal.

The perception of threat is often the first stage of information processing in an emergency. Folks with little regular exposure to airliner cabin environments — especially ones in an emergency state — lack experience in identifying and appraising situational cues that signal when it is time to leave, especially if the prominence of those cues does not effectively communicate the actual level of danger present to themselves and others. The sight of smoke or fire would prompt quick action, but sometimes the only clue something is wrong are the shouted commands to leave by airline staff. In the absence of a more salient threat like visible fire and smoke, some individuals will not raise their internal level of alarm and response.

This becomes particularly relevant when considering the impact of stress on cognition (thinking) while attempting to complete complex/high-stakes tasks such as those found in law enforcement, emergency medicine and aviation. Accordingly, professionals in these occupations are trained not only to recognize those cues just discussed, but to manage their stress so that the impact to decision making is minimized and desired outcomes are achieved.  However, one may rightfully argue that the complexity of the decision of whether or not to leave a piece of luggage behind pales in comparison to having to decide whether to open fire on a suspect, whether to amputate a severely injured limb, or whether a takeoff should continue in the face of an engine failure. By proposing this, we are acknowledging that not only is there value in being trained on how to deal with stress, but also that people with no such training who go from, say, an office job with its routine tasks into a novel airplane evacuation scenario could very well be expected to behave in ways that are counterproductive to ensuring their survival.

In 1997, D.A. Johnson outlined four common responses to severe physical threats seen in both animals and humans. The first is to directly combat the threat to protect oneself, and a second is considered “normal flight,” a way in which the organism seeks to evade the threat in an orderly, measured fashion. “Behavioral inaction” identifies those who take little to no action to save themselves from an external threat, a behavior commonly seen in animals that “play dead,” hoping that a predator will spare them further injury. And finally, “panic flight” is seen when the individual abandons the social convention of altruism (the concern for others) and uses any and all means to escape a dangerous situation regardless of the consequences. What might influence the type of response an “untrained” passenger will have to being ordered to evacuate? Perception of the level and type of danger, one’s upbringing and previous experiences, the presence of psychiatric and physical symptoms and disorders and the traits of one’s personality, to name a few. will all contribute to that final decision of whether to root around for one’s things or to leave as instructed.

On the subject of panic, there are certainly many examples of panic behavior during emergencies that have led to casualties across a wide range of situations. In aviation, it is of course natural to assume that once an emergency presents itself inside the cabin of an airliner, there is an increased likelihood of seeing some form of panic behavior. Perhaps one of the darkest examples of panic flight is Saudia Flight 163. After a successful emergency landing due to an inflight fire, all 301 people on board were asphyxiated when the exit doors on their L1011 were unable to be opened. Panic flight appears to have played a role in contributing to this outcome, given that all of the victims were found in the front half of the aircraft, revealing their frantic attempts to escape the fire at the rear via the forward exits.

Panic behavior is not the only life-threatening response observed in aviation emergencies. During the catastrophic crash of two 747’s on the runway of Tenerife in the Canary Islands in 1977, it was reported that many passengers, clearly in shock and displaying behavioral inaction, simply remained in their seats after the impact. One may wonder how many more lives may have been saved had these passengers been able to employ a different coping strategy. A survivor of the USAir 1493 crash in Los Angeles reported several of these behaviors. First, he displayed normal flight behavior by looking for his shoes and jacket to protect himself from the smoke. As he approached an exit that was clogged with people engaged in panic flight mode, struggling to get out without regard for one another, a sense of helplessness set in and he returned to the first class section. There, he stood “inactive” for a moment before locating a hole in the fuselage to escape through.

The notion of “personality” is an enormously complex psychological construct, a complete examination of which is beyond the scope of this article. Similarly, behavior is most accurately described as “multi-determined,” the product of several variables, personality being but one of them. The presumption of a direct link between thoughts and behavior, or situation and response, greatly oversimplifies how we react in different situations. Simply labeling the person who reaches for their bags as selfish is an example of something social psychologists call the “fundamental attribution error.” This is the tendency for people to attribute internal characteristics of a person in describing observed behavior(“that person was a selfish jerk to hold everyone up just to grab their bag,”) but when it comes to evaluating one’s own performance, situational factors are used to rationalize the behavior(“my only family heirloom is in that bag, it’s irreplaceable.”) More than a few people, in imagining what their own reactions might be, have in fact responded to the significant media coverage condemning the collection of personal belongings with statements such as: “my carry on is right under my seat, it would take me no extra time to grab it; I carry my medicine in my bag so I would need it” and even “I’m not leaving my laptop when I have no idea when or even if I would get it back from the airline.”

No doubt, self-preservation serves a protective role as a buffer against poor decision making that could lead to one’s demise on the individual level, or the extinction of the human race on a societal one. But inappropriate threat appraisal (due to lack of experience, training, or even simple lack of attention to the environment) comes with a cost— the substitution of one set of consequences for another. All of the things just discussed, the impaired information processing, the untrained individual, the high stress level of a novel situation, the personality — it becomes a toxic stew of components that, once assembled, sometimes results in the choice and insistence to take one’s things with them. This is done despite being specifically told not to do so, simply because those things are perceived as necessary for one’s survival. In the service of that basic human instinct to preserve the self, some elect to grab that bag. It is no different than the homeowner that searches for prized possessions before leaving their burning house; they have concluded, however irrationally, that the risk of death is acceptable to a life without those things. That being said, the homeowner usually does not have a hundred other souls behind them.

We have developed a great deal of insight into human behavior from a variety of theoretical perspectives, via research-based knowledge of the factors which can influence patterns of judgment and decision making. However, the insights gained with the large sample sizes typical of research settings don’t always translate well into discrete behavioral predictions that can be applied on an individual level. The prediction of recidivism in criminal offenders is an example of this. It would be practically impossible for one to know ahead of time which passengers would be more likely to exhibit this behavior and thus devise a way to protect other passengers from them and their actions. Also, the longstanding debate of whether it is the environment(behaviorism) or the intrinsic “traits” of an individual(personality psychology) that guides behavior casts its own shadow over the central question of what one is likely to do in a given scenario. Finally, it would be impractical to train every passenger to mitigate the effects of stress in “the unlikely event of an emergency;” that training is best conducted with flight and cabin crews who then would direct passengers accordingly. So, how can there be any hope of mapping out one or more solutions to discouraging and even preventing people from taking their bags during an evacuation?

Some have suggested examining technology-based interventions such as overhead bin locking systems that are engaged by flight or cabin crew when an emergency commences, or even introduce legal consequences to those who disregard flight staff instructions as a way of addressing this serious problem. Further, enhanced passenger education about the inappropriate (and dangerous) behavior of searching for and taking along personal belongings when the order to evacuate is given would certainly not be an unwelcome addition to the preflight safety announcement. In any event, this remains a vexing problem that seems will be with us at least for the near future.

It is noteworthy to keep in mind that “90-second or less” evacuation goal mentioned earlier. The evacuation of British Airways 2276 was reported to last almost five minutes. Unfortunately, this appears to be the norm rather than the exception, with many actual evacuations lasting significantly longer than 1.5 minutes. The implications of this will be left to the reader.

And just to reinforce the expectation for those who suddenly find themselves in the midst of having to evacuate an airliner, to quote your friendly professional flight attendants: “LEAVE EVERYTHING AND GET OUT!”

Top image by Marc-Antony Payne [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Bottom image courtesy RIA Novosti archive, image #344644 / Anton Denisov / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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William Rizzo


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