Who deserves the blame: the passengers, the flight crew, or somebody else?

That's the question some people are asking after viral images circulated recently showing passengers on recent Delta and Southwest Airlines flights making big, potentially life threatening mistakes during emergency situations.

  • Are passengers simply not listening?
  • Are airlines not offering effective leadership?
  • Or, possibly, are the equipment and processes just not good enough?

As I reported last week, flight crew from all airlines responded with a combination of annoyance and anger after images emerged from the evacuation of Delta Airlines flight 1854, showing passengers taking their carry on luggage with them as they evacuated a smoke-filled plane.

New video makes it even more clear, showing just how slowly passengers were moving, and how the carry on bags impeded the process and could have placed other people at risk.

This came on the heels of last month's emergency landing of Southwest Airlines flight 1380 in Philadelphia. Images and video from that flight, in which passenger Jennifer Riordan was killed, show other passengers using their oxygen masks incorrectly.

Specifically, many passengers caught on video put the masks over their mouths, but not their noses, which would make the masks far less effective. 

Both situations prompted widespread criticism of the passengers from flight crew and others. And, not for the first time. In fact, in the wake of two incidents in Chicago in 2016, the NTSB reportedly considered fining passengers who take their bags with them during an evacuation.

"Apparently the threat of death by incineration fueled by thousands of gallons of jet fuel isn't enough of a deterrent," as Sara Nelson, president the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, told the Chicago Sun-Times.

However, while passengers seem like they're flouting the safety rules, here's another explanation: They're under incredible stress in the moment, and they've never practiced any of the things they're asked to do in an emergency.

All of which makes me wonder if there's something we can do to make this all more automatic for passengers. Can we find other ways to "idiot proof" the process, and develop "mental muscle memory?"

If you've ever played competitive sports or served in the military, you understand why you drill how to react in certain situations over and over: so you won't have to think in the moment. The point is to make everything super, super simple.

And some of the video evidence we've seen recently makes it seem that we're not effectively doing that with airline passenger emergency procedures.  

For example, I've been flying for 30 years in all kinds of environments, and I now often write about this stuff.Yet, it's only today, while thinking about whether to write this article, that I learned two unexpected things about the oxygen masks aboard airliners.

First, there are no actual oxygen tanks involved (instead, the system burns a cocktail of chemicals to create oxygen, so you're likely to wind up inhaling powder) and second, as a result, the system generates a lot of heat, "like turning on a new oven," an occupational health expert told The Huffington Post

Hmmm. Who knew? And yet, these seem like things that would freak me out if I ever actually had to use the emergency mask. Why don't we do a better job of preparing passengers so they'd know what to expect in that kind of situation?

Again, none of this is criticize flight crew; it's to ask whether the procedures we're asking them to follow are sufficient.

We're fortunate. Until last month there hadn't been a U.S. passenger death on an airliner since 2009. And I'm not aware of any time that failing to do these two specific things--wearing an oxygen mask incorrectly, or taking bags during an evacuation--led to a death.

But all it takes is one time. And if we keep seeing that passengers act these ways, and flight attendants can't control them, isn't it at least possible the solution is to come up with better, more easily communicated procedures?

I don't claim to have all the answers, but couldn't this at least be part of the problem?