A lesson in collective survival

It took 18 precious minutes for Japan Airlines (JAL) Flight 516 to safely evacuate all its 367 passengers including eight infants, and 12 crew members, after colliding upon touchdown with another aircraft at busy Haneda International Airport in Tokyo last Jan. 2. By industry standards, that was quite long. Ninety seconds or less is the prescribed time to fully vacate a passenger aircraft in distress.

Still, no one would say that the crew of the 2-year-old Airbus A350 did not perform an exemplary job. Indeed, industry experts are unanimous in their praise for the calm and disciplined way in which the JAL crew members shepherded passengers out of the burning aircraft. Despite the smoke that had started to seep into the cabin, the passengers dutifully followed the flight attendants’ instructions to leave their carry-on bags behind and to head for the designated exits in single file.

Ten minutes after the chief pilot slid out of the plane by an escape chute, the plane exploded. Video footage taken by some passengers shows toxic fumes slowly flooding the aircraft’s cabin even as people patiently waited for their turn at the deployed emergency chutes. A child’s voice could be heard pleading for the doors to be opened. (The cabin crew had to decide which of the exit doors could be safely opened without risking the spread of the fire into the cabin.) A few more minutes’ delay would have been catastrophic. Many could have died from suffocation.

The other aircraft, a rescue plane belonging to the Japan Coast Guard, was on a mission to bring relief supplies to communities affected by the 7.6-magnitude earthquake the day before. It was preparing to take off on the same runway when its tail was hit by the much bigger passenger jet. Of the six crew members, five died on the spot. Only the pilot survived, with critical injuries. The plane strayed beyond the holding point where it had been cleared to proceed by airport flight controllers. Footage from the airport’s CCTV cameras shows that for 40 seconds the coast guard plane seemed stationary, with a portion of it blocking the runway on which JL 516 had been cleared to land.

As tragic as the loss of the relief plane’s five crew members may be (reports say this was their third trip in 24 hours to bring supplies to earthquake victims), the fact that everyone in the larger passenger jet survived unscathed is nothing short of miraculous. The Airbus A350 jetliner streaked into the runway like a ball of fire in the gathering darkness, coming to a full stop after about a kilometer. The pilots sensed they had struck something on the runway but were unaware that the plane’s left engine had burst into flames upon impact. From the cockpit, they obviously could not see the flames below. But the cabin crew had a good view of the fire that was starting to engulf the aircraft. They knew what to do under these circumstances.

I could imagine the scene that quickly unfolded inside the cabin. From their usual image as glorified wait staff, serving food and drinks to sometimes self-entitled customers, the flight attendants instantly metamorphosed into safety officers barking authoritative orders. This is the bulk of their training. They must act calmly, confidently, and knowledgeably in all kinds of emergency situations.

In contrast, as passengers, we only get a tiny glimpse of what this drill entails. And all too often, we choose—out of indifference or self-assuredness—not to pay attention to onboard instructions on how to put on oxygen masks and safety vests, or what to do and where to exit in case of an emergency landing. Worse, we tend to saddle ourselves with bulky carry-on luggage, instead of checking this in, sometimes in the foolish hope of avoiding excess baggage charges.

Air travel has become a lot safer over the years because of new composite materials like carbon fiber used in the fabrication of passenger aircraft. The new generation of commercial airplanes are lighter, more resistant to fire, have sturdier frames, and better insulation. But accidents like runway incursions, though rare, can lead to the total loss of these planes. Such situations present valuable opportunities for designing better aircraft. I am sure part of the inquiry into the Haneda accident will determine if the cabin interior could have been designed better to enable passengers to exit more efficiently.

But I can’t help thinking that there has to be a cultural factor behind the almost perfect emergency evacuation of nearly 400 people from a burning passenger aircraft. It is noteworthy that of the 379 people on board JL 516, only 43 were non-Japanese. The ethos of discipline, courtesy, and orderliness that is ingrained in every Japanese person from childhood was palpable in this rare feat of collective survival. In a similar situation, I wonder how many of us would unconditionally obey a flight attendant’s order to leave behind all carry-on bags and not try to retrieve some stuff from the overhead bin? How many would heed instructions not to rush to the exits at the same time—rather than wait for our turn—to get out of a burning plane?