All 300 people onboard the Emirates Boeing 777 escaped with their lives when the aircraft crash-landed at Dubai Airport and burst into flames [see article, page 7]. Sadly a firefighter was killed tackling the blaze, but the scale of the tragedy could have been so much larger.

Modern airliners and aero engines are designed, built and regulated to incredibly exacting standards to ensure that if the worst happens, the accident is survivable. Most important of all is an aircraft design that allows for rapid evacuation, within 90 seconds according to FAA requirements. Flight crew training is equally important. In this incident, passengers appear to owe much to the 777’s design and the cabin crew. Emirates was also exemplary in how it took care of the passengers afterwards.

Not so exemplary, however, were the actions of many passengers, who were videoed blocking aisles and wasting precious seconds, as they opened overhead bins and scrambled for their bags. And while we know about this dangerous chaos from onboard personal video, it’s appalling that passengers film an emergency situation when they should be running to the exit.

Scenes of passengers prioritizing personal possessions and new material for Facebook and Twitter are increasingly commonplace and worrisome. But so, too, is talk about the need for new regulation, limits on carry-on bags, or devices such as locking overhead bins. The latter, for instance, would likely be expensive and could have unintended consequences if passengers waste even more time trying to break open locked bins. 

Airlines, however, could rethink their emergency instructions and safety videos to take into account modern passenger behavior. They could put much stronger emphasis on leaving bags behind; even forbid passengers to open overhead bins or to use cameras during an emergency. Some people will still disobey, but rules are more likely to register if made explicit, and it’s then easier for passengers to correct those who behave recklessly.

The majority of airline safety videos and briefings place equal or more time explaining how to strap on a life vest and locate its whistle and light than on signaling the exits and the need for speed in an evacuation. Yet how often in modern history has a vest actually saved a life in a commercial airliner emergency? The answer is, never. Even in the 2009 US Airways flight 1549 incident when the pilot famously landed the A320 on the Hudson River in New York after a multiple bird strike, all 155 people survived despite the majority of passengers not taking or properly fitting their life vests.

This is not a call to abandon life vests. But the imperative in recent, survivable emergencies was to get people out of a burning aircraft as fast as possible. The top message of the safety brief should be no bags, no stopping, get out.

Rewritten safety briefing scripts might not change all modern habits, but it would be the easiest, fastest, cheapest and potentially most effective way to achieve the desired effect: to get everyone, including crew, out of harm’s way.