Aeroplane evacuations: why people grab their luggage before escaping

In his first hand account of the emergency evacuation of the British Airways plane that caught fire on a runway at Las Vegas, Guardian journalist Jacob Steinberg described how some passengers tried to get their luggage out of the overhead lockers.

After escaping the blazing BA plane, some passengers can be seen with their hand luggage.

Images of passengers disembarking with luggage prompted a flurry of criticism on Twitter, but not all safety videos explicitly state that passengers should leave luggage behind in an emergency evacuation.

BA’s safety video explicitly says luggage should be left behind. It says: “Move quickly to the closest usable exit taking nothing with you. High heels must be taken off as they may tear the evacuation slide.”

The Virgin Atlantic safety video is equally clear: “Leave everything behind you.”

Air France’s safety video, however, omits this detail.

Whatever the safety instructions, it is understandable that few people pay attention to them as most flights occur without mishap; the worst that may occur on most flights is a bumpy ride.

In the event of an evacuation, cabin crew should instruct passengers according to guidelines from the International Air Transport Association, the trade association for the world’s airlines.

IATA said: “Instructing passengers to leave behind their belongings is important, as baggage carried to the door of the aircraft will impede or delay evacuations and cause pile ups at the bottom of the evacuation slide.”

As for those passengers who did grab their carry-on luggage during the dramatic evacuation in Las Vegas, Steinberg observed: “I’ve subsequently seen some criticism of them on Twitter but if you weren’t there, how do you know how you would have reacted? People do odd things when they panic.”

Dr James Thompson, fellow of the British Psychological Society, put forward several explanations as to why people would think of their luggage in such a life-threatening situation.

“The plane has stopped, so people automatically worry about getting their luggage,” he said, adding that it takes intelligence and time to get into an emergency frame of mind. On top of this are what can be seen as mixed signals.

“The initial advice was to sit tight, which is good,” he said. “But then it gets confusing because you’re told to get the hell out. So the initial message is to freeze and then to flee. However, once you are told to flee, you should just go and not bother with the £100 you are leaving behind.”

Thompson suggested that airlines should have an emergency door in the airport waiting lounge for passengers to practice opening in the waiting lounge if they wanted to have really effective safety warnings. But effective as that may be psychologically, he acknowledged that the airlines would never go down this route.

Thompson said studies suggested that the safest place to be in an emergency evacuation would be in the row behind the nearest an exit.

“In the first row you are likely to be stampeded,” he said. “You have a better chance behind when you can look left and right to see where to go and then run without taking anything. Jump and break a leg if you have to but don’t bother with the passport.

In the incident at McCarran international airport at Las Vegas, the left engine of the Boeing 777-200 burst into flames, forcing 157 passengers, 10 crew and three pilots to evacuate through emergency slides.

Fire officials said at least 14 people were taken to hospital with minor injuries, mostly caused by them sliding down the inflatable chutes to escape. The captain was named as Chris Henkey, from Reading in Berkshire, who has more than four decades of flying experience with BA.

This article was written by Mark Tran from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to


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