Aeroflot Fire: More Passengers Could Have Been Saved

As further details emerge surrounding the Aeroflot crash landing, a worrying trend has become clear. Despite safety instructions clearly asking people not to stop for their belongings in an emergency evacuation situation, many of the survivors exiting the burning plane clearly did just that.

Aeroflot Sukhoi Superjet
An Aeroflot Sukhoi Superjet crash landed at Moscow Airport. Photo: Wikimedia

Since we reported on the devastating crash landing of a Sukhoi Superjet in Moscow yesterday, further details have emerged. We now have more information on the cause of the accident and, more disturbingly, potentially deadly delays to evacuation caused by people stopping to collect their luggage.

What happened?

It was initially thought that an electrical fault caused the fire, which meant the aircraft returned to Moscow for an emergency landing. However, footage from the airport webcam appears to show the Superjet coming into land too fast, and a bounce and second heavy landing causing the fire to start.

Aeroflot say that malfunctions on board were detected shortly after takeoff, but the BBC is reporting that it may have been struck by lightning. Undoubtedly there will be a full investigation into what caused the crash over the coming weeks. However, it’s already becoming clear why there was such a large loss of life.

Collecting baggage

In a video showing the moments after landing, numerous passengers can be seen walking away from the aircraft with their baggage. Several have stopped to collect wheeled suitcases and backpacks from the overhead lockers as they exited the plane, something which anyone who flies knows you are not supposed to do.

Others have been maligned on social media for filming inside the plane. I’d rather not post that footage up as no normal person really wants to hear the sounds of people screaming and dying, but if you really want to see it it’s all over Twitter.

Delays caused by people rummaging around in the overhead lockers for their bags almost certainly contributed to the devastating loss of life in this incident. Our hearts go out to the many families affected by this tragedy, as well as our respect for the cabin crew who managed to get so many people off the aircraft safely.

Rising death toll

Initial reports suggested that everyone had evacuated the aircraft safely. However, as time passed the number of fatalities grew to 13, 20 and eventually to the current toll of 41. Two of the victims are thought to be children, and one US citizen was said to be on board also.

Although Aeroflot state that the evacuation was completed in just 55 seconds, it is somewhat telling that only 37 of the 78 passengers and crew escaped with their lives. The consensus is that it is highly likely people stopping to collect baggage caused significant delays which contributed to the loss of life.

Geoffrey Thomas from Airline Ratings talked to 7 News about the situation, saying:

“What is really concerning here is if you look at the vision you can see them carrying their bags … and there’s passengers inside taking videos…

“Clearly this is another situation where passengers getting their bags off, instead of just getting off the airplane, has tragically caused… people to lose their lives.

“It’s just a real tragedy that this has happened, and it’s been a problem industry has been looking at for some time, with passengers not obeying crew instructions to get off the airplane as quickly as possible.”

A worrying trend?

People stopping to collect bags is a common problem for airline crew. Despite their best efforts to get people to just get off the plane, passengers seem more concerned with their replaceable belongings than the irreplaceable lives of the people behind them.

When Emirates flight EK521 crash landed at Dubai in 2016, numerous people wasted precious time rummaging in the overhead compartments. As the cabin filled with smoke, crew can be heard screaming at people to leave their bags and jump and slide.

Again, in 2015, a British Airways Boeing 777 flight 2276 crash landed in Las Vegas. Passengers could clearly be seen departing the aircraft with wheeled suitcases and other baggage.

As a result, the British Civil Aviation Authority issued a blunt warning to passengers, which said that airlines,

“should review their procedures and the manner by which passengers are informed of pre-flight safety information. This should include the contents of briefings and safety cards in order to ensure that clear instructions to leave hand baggage behind in the event of an evacuation, and the potential consequences of not doing so, are included and embedded in passenger awareness.”

It adds that “consideration should also be given to the content and method of delivery, taking into account passenger behavior and distraction during pre-flight safety briefings.”

It also noted how “some passengers appear not to assimilate, or not to heed such [safety] information and remain unaware of its significance to their, and their fellow passengers’, overall safety.”

Airline Ratings notes many more incidents which have seen passengers involved in emergency evacuations stopping to collect belongings. During US Airways famous Hudson River crash landing, a man can be seen on the wing with his carry on slung over his shoulder. Asiana flight 214 caught fire in 2013 after an horrific landing, and passengers can be seen wheeling their suitcases away from the plane.

What’s the answer?

Clearly, despite all safety information explicitly instructing passengers not to stop and collect belongings, a worrying number of people believe the rule doesn’t apply to them. Taking a suitcase in an emergency evacuation not only endangers the people who are held up behind them, it also poses the risk of puncturing the evacuation slide, of knocking someone out in the cabin as they swing it down, or even of hurting someone (including themselves) as they slide off the plane.

In some cases, the language barrier could be blamed for people not following instructions. However, in most cases there is enough understanding for people to know what it means. It seems some passengers just don’t think, or don’t care, and are prepared to endanger others rather than lose a few personal belongings.

So, what can be done? One suggestion would be to install automatic locks on the overhead compartments, which do not open in the case of an emergency evacuation. Perhaps they could be linked to the seatbelt sign, or be ‘smart bins’ only allowing passengers access to the bins if and when it is safe to do so.

American Airlines A321neo XL Storage Bins
Could locking bins be the answer? Photo: Airbus.

Another idea would be to allow airlines and / or aviation authorities to fine passengers who break the rules. However, this is probably more challenging to implement, as it would require the passengers to be identified and for their actions to be proven. Also, by the time they’ve broken the rule, the damage has already been done and lives potentially lost.

A final suggestion, and probably the least popular, would be to ban cabin baggage altogether, instead allowing only small handbags or rucksacks on board. This would probably be most popular with airlines, as it would cost nothing to implement and could free up the locker space for additional freight on the flight. However, passengers would not like this idea at all.

However, if this worrying trend is not going away, something drastic has to be done to