Passengers Who Take Carry On Bags During an Evacuation Shouldn’t Be Fined

Whenever there’s an aircraft evacuation there are photos of passengers taking personal items out of the plane. Sometimes it’s a purse or laptop bag from underneath their seat. Other times it’s the rollaboard out of the overhead bin.

There’s no question that if you’re evacuating the plane you need to do it quickly. Time is of the essence, slowing down could put your own life in danger as well as the lives of other passengers.

One common suggestion is that overhead bins should be automatically locked during an evacuation so that passengers can’t access their belongings. I worry that passengers will spend more time tugging on the bins since they’re locked, trying to get their bags, than it takes them to get bags from an unlocked bin.

Lock the overhead bins and you’ll still have passengers stopping to videotape the evacuation from inside the plane, perhaps taking selfies, and even uploading to social media.

The whole point of evacuation procedures is that they need to be so good they can withstand fallible humans.

  • Instead of trying to change human behavior, we need to engineer around it.

  • Adrenaline is pumping, people revert to their usual tendencies, and they probably don’t remember what they were told during the safety briefing anyway.

  • Passengers assume that if they don’t take their belongings they won’t get them back for an extended pariod of time. One alternative would be to credibly commit – and demonstrate – that’s not the case.

  • In other words take away the felt need for passengers to grab all their belongings if you don’t want passengers to grab all their belongings.

Recent hearings surrounding the fire and subsequent evacuation of an American Airlines Boeing 767 at Chicago O’Hare has brought many passenger criticisms and safety changes back to the forefront.

Examining what went wrong in any incident is how aviation gets better and safer. Air travel has become incredibly safe and despite tweets to the contrary not because of the President.

The Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board says fining passengers is worth exploring.

After a number of passengers refused to leave their carry-on bags behind amid a chaotic evacuation of a burning American Airlines jetliner at O’Hare Airport in 2016, a flight attendant offered a federal investigator an idea for dealing with such potentially dangerous intransigence: “Maybe issue fines for passengers who take luggage.”

That’s worth exploring, says Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, which recently finished its investigation into the fiery incident in which the Boeing 767-300 safely screeched to a halt on an O’Hare runway after an engine blew during takeoff.

“I have thought about that,” Sumwalt told the Chicago Sun-Times. “People might be less inclined to worry about all their Gucci luggage.”

It’s worth remember that everyone survived American Airlines flight 383 and that the threat of dying in flames didn’t stop people from grabbing for their carry ons. Fines — unlikely to be on their mind at the time in any case — aren’t likely to either. And fining passengers that have just been through such a trauma seems the wrong way to approach the problem.

In the case of the American Airlines flight from Chicago to Miami where pilots aborted takeoff due to a fire in the plane’s right engine that spread,

  • there may be lessons to learn about standardizing the inflight phones across aircraft because flight attendants and pilots had difficulty communicate the extent of the emergency.

  • new engine inspections may be called for as it was determined there was an engine defect which led to the fire

  • checklist procedures could be improved, since they didn’t call for the remaining good engine to be immediately shut down for the evacuation, leading to the one serious injury from the event.

In other words there are serious and specific learning items that can take place from the event. And serious thought should be given to how to get passengers to prioritize evacuation over everything else. However criticizing passengers — rather than taking fallible passengers as a given — probably isn’t productive.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. If my backpack is at my feet, you’re damn straight I’m grabbing it to take with me as I head out the slide. I can certainly understand not grabbing big suitcases and so on, but anyone with a purse or backpack at their feet is well justified in grabbing it IMO.

  2. Agree. Seems silly to fine people. In a panic they function on auto pilot. Fining seems like the perfect opportunity for the next wave of litigation. It seems it would be pretty easy to prove the passenger was in stress/shock and couldn’t remember the instructions. That could get expensive!

  3. I would probably grab my back pack especially if this happened while I am international… I rather have all my documents with me, especially in the case of a fire… Then again all i need is a computer and internet connection to retrieve scanned copies of them from home.,

  4. Keep your shoes on during take off and landing, you’ll appreciate having them on a hot or cold runway strewn with debris. Keep you wallet, passport and fully charged phone(be sure it’s charged before boarding) in your pocket. Everything else can be left behind. You will have everything you need to survive the evacuation and be able to contact family and rebook your travel.

    Everything else can be replaced, including your precious laptop with its fully backed files.

    Emergency evac procedures need to be repeated/reviewed by cabin crews just prior to landing with emphasis on “leave everything behind”.

  5. Clearly passengers should be strongly encouraged to leave everything behind, but clearly some people will forget in the panic and others are too selfish to care about the safety of others.

    Another option would be to have a baggage hatch beside each emergency exit. Have a procedure whereby an FA is stationed at each exit, who ensures that passengers throw their bag out of the hatch before going down the slide. No arguments, just a command from the FA. This should remove most of the problem. Then, if anyone refuses, a big fine will be appropriate, if not a criminal charge.

    And, yes, clearly procedures need to be tightened. But there will always be accidents.

  6. Fining people sounds like a terrible option. What happens if your purse or backpack had your passport, your birth certificate and a good amount of cash and you’re not someone who can replace the documents and money easily? What happens if you’ve got meds in your bag and you need them to function? No wheeled bags makes sense but carrying a backpack seems logical.

    Better education of WHY you need to leave them and when you’ll be allowed back to get them in a hypothetical emergency is key as it would mean that we all know that if we have an emergency landing, that they will do their best to get us our bags as soon as it is safe to enter the cabin.

    Maybe we should be running drills and making evacuation standards based on actual passenger behavior rather than unrealistic hypothetical standards. Like before fire code, there was usually significant egress but often the doors opened inwards. And the designers didn’t anticipate that problem which of course is why we now have doors that open outwards in large venues.

  7. The optics of fining people who had the misfortune to need to evacuate is pretty bad. Why not flip it around? Announce that every bag recovered after the incident from within the aircraft will be returned to its owner along with a $1000 reward for having left it behind.

  8. What is the procedure for airlines to return luggage following an evacuation? Until they communicate that, I would probably take my backpack with laptop, change of clothes and important docs. Otherwise, I’m relying on an airline that just had an aircraft get damaged to take care of me. Who knows when they will return luggage, give me a hotel voucher or rebook me.

  9. @JBJ and other who think it is fine to take a back pack or purse. You ask about people who might have trouble replacing a passport or cash or other important items. So far as I am aware, it is much easier to replace any document than it is to replace a son or daughter or a grandfather or grandmother who dies in an evacuation because the strap of your purse or back pack got caught on something and delayed the evacuation. Let me tell you, if you get in the way of my children getting off a burning plane, you will be missing a lot more than your stupid passport.

  10. How long does it take to evacuate a ‘regular’ plane? Skipping the overhead makes sense, but if you’re waiting, why not pick up your backpack?

  11. I think the biggest problem with safety briefings in general is that they do not address a fundamental fact of American culture. We are not people who take orders without questioning authority or necessity. Safety announcements already say to leave everything behind, but people need the connection: in an emergency evacuation, seconds matter. Taking your bag could kill the person behind you. That’s the message that needs to be delivered for people to follow these rules.

  12. Typically Republican poor-hating tactic. And he’s trying to gaslight this by bringing up the Gucci strawman. Nothing less expected from a Bush appointee, if Trump were to put in his own director he’d probably want to throw people in jail. Republicans are despicable misanthropists. Obama should have fired the guy.

  13. It’s foolish to think that people wouldn’t take a briefcase that is right there at their feet, especially considering the unknown timeline in which any bags left on the plane that weren’t destroyed would be returned. No one needs to fish in bins, agreed, but my briefcase has car keys and passport and a bunch of other stuff, and the absence of any of those things could be a real pain in the ass on an ongoing basis.

  14. Although I agree a fine might not be top of mind, perhaps it could be mentioned in the safety announcement so it would be drilled into everyone’s heads? It should be a hefty fine.

    It bothers me people think it’s acceptable to potentially jeopardize other people’s safety for the sake of thier personal belongings. If you need your laptop so bad how about you remain seated until everyone else evacuates?

    Also it’s silly to say “well on this flight some people took their belongings with them and everyone got out safely therefore its OK.” that’s like saying bc you’ve texted while driving before or driven drunk before and no one got hurt it’s a safe thing to do.

    Recently my mom was on that AA flight that made an emergency landing in Texas, she told me she put on her coat and positioned her bag so she could escape with it. I couldn’t believe I was arguing with her about this. Luckily no slide was needed but I reminded her she could be jeopardizing her safety and the safety of others.

    Please leave all non living things behind…

  15. I think the takeaway from all this is that when evacuating, the passengers who stop to fiddle around while attempting to retrieve, sort through, and re-pack their carryon(s) are slowing down those who just want out of the burning plane with nothing more than their lives intact.

  16. I completely understand that some people want to gather their belongings. I have no issue with that. They just need to wait until the people who value their lives rather than their possessions get off the plane. If someone is imperiling lives to gather whatever crap they deem important, I will do whatever is required to move them aside or ahead so everyone behind them doesn’t end up dead. If valuing many human lives over possessions makes me a bad person, then I guess I’ll have to live with that.

  17. I think it’s highly unlikely that people in great stress won’t do what they are used to doing, which is taking belongings when leaving a plane. I read a lot about what passengers encountered when the Istanbul airport was taken over/shut down a couple of years ago and have read a lot about various plane crashes. I’ve also been on a plane that we thought was going to have to evacuate (ultimately we landed safely in a very mild situation that wasn’t anything close to life-threatening).
    Based on those experiences, I would never leave without my phone, passport, wallet, and glasses. Since the near-evacuation experience, all of those are in the swing pack/type purse I wear throughout flights and tuck into my backpack when boarding and going through security. It is always on, even while I sleep, and can be worn under my coat (which people have been told to take with them when evacuating in some situations, including the “Sully” water landing in the winter).
    Gary really nails the fact that Airlines do not get you your things back promptly, and if you are trying to get on another plane and out of a bad situation, you can leave a suitcase of clothes and toiletries, but you can’t get out without documents.

  18. @Christian, good point.

    If I was willing to be last off, then I should be able to take the things I need with me.

  19. Bringing your cell phone or handbag with you is not the same as retrieving your overhead luggage.
    More importantly, who travels with irreplaceable items? Computers and tablets get lost, and/or crash to the point of unrecoverable data. Back it up, both locally and to the cloud or at work.
    Cell phones get lost and also crash. Passports, Drivers License, Credit Cards, Wallets, SS Cards, get stolen, lost, etc. Keep a copy of your passport in the cloud, even if it is a photo snapped from your cell phone and uploaded to your private email account. While you are at it, photograph your license, major Credit Card, and similar identifying information.
    Make sure you have safe guards to protect your email from being hacked, because someone will have access to a trove of Personal ID documents. If you are worried about that, just remember, if it is in your possession, you are one robbery or misplaced wallet/cell phone/purse away from losing those items anyway. And even if you do everything right, leave it to Equifax, Yahoo, or any number of companies to lose your data that you didn’t willingly or knowingly upload to the web.
    I won’t bring up comfort animals. Are travelers so materialistic they would risk numerous lives to retrieve a carry on? And since the crew has to leave last, they get to make the call. But probably we wont be involved in a major incident, more likely, we will lose something that we really need, and a good backup plan in place beforehand will make it a non-event and allow you to leave it all behind if the time comes.
    Since this is a credit card site promoting travel, i would bet AMEX and Chase will do their best to get you replacement cards while you travel. But I don’t know, because I have never needed that type of help.

  20. Picking up your bag at your feet is fine with me, but someone who stops to take a bag out of an overhead in front of me with a plane on fire is going to get seriously hurt I guarantee it!
    Don’t fine them ban them from flying, they are a danger to all of us!

  21. “More importantly, who travels with irreplaceable items?”

    I do. I work on my computer, it travels with me, and what I’ve done on it that day, or on that flight, isn’t backed up, even if everything else is.

    Are my passport, my house and car keys, and my wallet “irreplaceable”? No, but replacing them would cost me a great deal of time, effort, and money.

    So no, there’s no way in the world I’m exiting that plane w/o my computer bag. I’m also not going to stand in the aisle blocking everyone else. But I’ve seen how slow people are getting off the plane even when they aren’t panicked. The idea that I won’t have time to grab it is stupid in the extreme

  22. Until the airlines make it clear that they will fully and fairly reimburse the passengers for the luggage they left on the plane, people will keep taking it.

  23. This subject is really interesting psychologically speaking when considering the answers of those who demand to take their luggage no matter what. That it endangers the lives of everybody should be self-evident to anybody with a minimum of intelligence. It takes time to get the bag, the bag takes up space forcing other passengers to stay back, a one-armed passenger is a lot less agile, the bag may get stuck, it may even damage the slide, etcetera.

    Why do people then require to take their luggage with them? It can be assumed some just react wrongly in a situation of panic. And keeping your luggage about is a bit like keeping hold of a teddy bear. It gives security and in a situation of panic creates a comfort of normalcy. It can also be a case of incapability to react to danger. Either is understandable and forgivable.

    All other situations seem to be a problem of mental incapacity going from collectors/hoarders unable to consider losing their belongings to extreme examples of people of impaired empathy, persistent antisocial behaviour, egoism and even psychopathy.

    The question “would you leave your luggage” is a good candidate for personality tests.

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