Airplane with evacuation slides out

Airplane Emergency! How to Avoid Injury Deplaning

Chances are excellent you’re a frequent flyer. You and 2,587,000 passengers who fly every day in and out of U.S. airports, on an average of 26,527 flights. The great news is that in 2017 not one person died in a commercial airline crash. HOWEVER, you can be injured even if your airplane doesn’t even leave the ground . . .

That’s what I discovered Monday evening, February 12th, aboard Southwest Airlines Flight 2123. Just as we were about to pull away from the Orange County Gate 17 at 7:30 pm, “Evacuate – this is not a drill” sounded loud and clear from the Captain. About a minute before, without notice, all but a few emergency lights had gone out, so 139 passengers had to make their way down the aisle to the nearest exits – in the dark. Emergency evacuation slides deployed, and the passengers in the exit row dutifully opened their over-the-wing exits. And that, we learned later, was when the injuries occurred.

Two women stepped out onto their respective wings, which were now rain-slicked, and immediately slipped and fell – one nearly falling to the ground before her husband caught her; both badly skinned their elbows and arms. During their exit row spiel, flight attendants typically don’t tell you what to do after the door pops open. But here’s the secret: when you step through the door onto the wing, turn left; that side of the wing is closer to the ground, and much safer to jump from, particularly since there were no slides on 2123’s wings.

However, elsewhere on the airplane there were three evacuation slides (a fourth was not deployed since it was too close to the smoking engine). And, there’s definitely a protocol for sliding: sit up straight (not on your back or side) and keep your legs open – for balance and so you don’t impale the person at the bottom that you slide into (there were at least three people “stacked” at the bottom on my slide). Those whose backs or hips were injured didn’t follow the protocol. Also, aside from your phone, wallet, and passport (which savvy travelers keep on their bodies during take-off and landing), leave everything behind. Although I saw one laptop and a few purses attached to passengers after deplaning, most people followed the law and didn’t try to take their carry-ons with them.

In our case, there was a “replacement airplane” already available at the airport, but it didn’t do us much good since it took over two hours for the Fire Marshal to clear our “original” airplane for re-entry by the crew – no passengers – to gather the checked baggage to move it to the “new” plane. It took even longer before they could start pulling out the carry-ons from overhead compartments and under seats. Another lesson: mark your carry-ons! When the bags previously stuffed under seats came out they were in a series of mounds for identification; at least the roller bags were brought out standing. And a few – forgotten or abandoned – were “left over.”

Since Orange County/Santa Ana/SNA/John Wayne has a 10 pm curfew – even being repeatedly assured we’d get out that night – with every passing minute, “making curfew” became an increasing concern. Our original flight’s take-off was already over half-an-hour late at 7:30; now we were told we’d be out by 9, then 10, then we got an “extension” to 10:30. Finally, we taxied away from the gate about 11:03. Not only was John Wayne empty, so was San Jose when we landed safely, after midnight.

Besides being able to share “deplaning anecdotes” and “smoking plane” pictures with fellow survivors, Southwest’s ground personnel did a great job keeping the passengers’ tension to a minimum once deplaned and back in the airport. The Southwest team’s “updates” and more generous snacks (the ones usually only served on long distance flights) didn’t get us to San Jose any faster, but the importance of frequent, upbeat communication, particularly with frazzled customers was another critical lesson re-learned!

Mimi Grant, President, Adaptive Business Leaders (ABL) Organization – Round Tables and Events for CEOs of Technology and Healthcare Companies