Investigator seeks lessons from chaotic near disaster

US National Transportation Safety Board Chairman, Robert Sumwalt, has issued some blunt advice to airline passengers: do as the cabin crew says.

The NTSB chairman was commenting about on an ongoing investigation into an uncontrolled engine failure during take-off on an American Airlines Boeing 767 in October 2016. All 170 passengers and crew successfully evacuated the aircraft, at Chicago O’Hare Airport, but 21 people were injured, one seriously.

Sumwalt said the investigation had discovered serious flaws in how the evacuation was carried out. ‘Normally, the cabin crew would communicate with the flight crew to coordinate,’ he said. ‘But in this accident, there were no communications between the cabin and the cockpit before or during the evacuation. As a result, flight attendants initiated the evacuation with the left engine still running. The one seriously injured passenger was blown over by jet blast from that engine,’ Sumwalt said.

The evacuation was also slowed by passengers retrieving their baggage—despite flight attendant instructions to leave it behind. ‘One passenger even resisted a flight attendant attempting to take away a carry-on bag … in a burning airplane,’ Sumwalt said.

‘Let me also say a word to the flying public: Follow your crew’s instructions. Things can be replaced. People can’t. Pilots and flight attendants need your cooperation, as a passenger, to perform safe and orderly evacuation. They’ll tell you when, where, and how to exit—and to leave your baggage behind.’

‘Fortunately, the lessons we learned from this accident did not come at the cost of human lives.’

The NTSB has recommended that checklists reflect the difference between engine fires in flight, where lives depend on an operational second engine, and engine fires on the ground, where lives might depend on shutting down the engine.

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