Not likely, said Leslie Mayo, a flight attendant for more than 26 years. Instead, that flight attendant is probably mentally running through "the 30-second review that's been drilled into our heads," she said.
"If you see some of us just sitting there looking out into space, we're probably actually reviewing those safety procedures. You're assessing the cabin. You're thinking, if there's an evacuation, who are my assistants going to be? Who's going to be the most helpful and calm in a situation where you really need help from passengers?" said Mayo, who is also a spokeswoman for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents more than 16,000 American Airlines flight attendants.
As investigators work to determine the cause (or, more likely, causes) of the crash of Asiana Flight 214 that killed two and injured 180 at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday, people with expertise in aviation safety, or with personal experience in aviation disasters, have been shaking their heads in wonder. How could so many have evacuated that airplane alive? And what can be learned about aviation safety from this incident?
Asiana flight attendants have won wide praise for their performance. Mayo and others are amazed that it took only about 90 seconds to get everyone off that plane, which was carrying 291 passengers and 16 crew. The evacuation was also aided by some passengers who by and large remained calm on an airplane that was on fire, filled with smoke, its tail section broken off, with several of its emergency evacuation slides malfunctioning.
For passengers, some basic lessons were firmly reinforced. These include following crew members' instructions in an emergency and the overall importance of what the safety experts call situational awareness. Routinely, on any flight, we should know exactly where those exit doors are that the flight attendants keep trying to point out during the usually ignored safety demonstrations. We should be asking ourselves, if an emergency occurred what would I do? If I'm in or near an exit row, can I open that door?
Other reinforced lessons were the importance of cabin-design safety, an initiative that has helped to sharply reduce accident casualties. "It's a testament to some of the safety features that have been designed into new airplanes that so many people were able to walk away on Saturday," said Matt Ziemkiewicz, president of the National Air Disaster Alliance Foundation, whose members include people, including aviation professionals, who have lost relatives in airplane accidents.
Still, as Ziemkiewicz and others pointed out, new questions are arising about some design features on the wide-body Boeing 777 that crashed on Saturday. Among the things that the National Transportation Safety Board will be looking closely at is whether some coach-cabin seats came off their tracks or sustained unacceptable damage on impact, and why two of the inflatable emergency slides apparently opened inside the cabin, pinning several people before crew members found an ax to deflate the slides.
"There is something to be learned from every crash," said Ziemkiewicz, whose sister Jill was a flight attendant who died in the crash of TWA Flight 800 in 1996.
So how about those images of passengers on the Asiana plane who slid to safety toting their carry-on bags and other possessions - against all standard protocols?
"But lugging a carry-on bag down the aisle during an emergency evacuation, when seconds can mean the difference between life and death, is reckless, endangering not just your own life, but the lives of people behind you. Those escape slides are much steeper and higher off the ground than it looks on television. They are designed to get a planeload of people out of, and away from, the aircraft as quickly as possible - without their belongings."
Mayo had the same reaction at seeing so many carry-on bags piled on the tarmac in San Francisco. "There were two boxes of duty-free alcohol next to two passengers as they were staring at the wreckage," she said. "I was looking at that and going, how in the world did they get that past a flight attendant? I'll tell you, nobody would have got that past me."
The main lesson I would take away from the Asiana crash is this: Flight attendants have a lot of jobs, some of them irksome, but the main job is safety. Attention must be paid.
Consider Lee Yoon-hye, the lead flight attendant on Asiana Flight 214. Lee, who had a broken tailbone, fought flames and helped usher people to the functioning emergency slides. She watched another flight attendant piggyback a young child through the smoke. "I was only thinking about rescuing the next passenger," she said at a news conference on Sunday.
She was the last person to leave the wreckage of the plane. And that's the way it works, Mayo said.
"Have you ever heard of an accident where the flight attendants jumped out first?" she asked.
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