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  • ANALYSIS: Superjet fire puts focus on evacuation threat

ANALYSIS: Superjet fire puts focus on evacuation threat

Survivability analysis of the Aeroflot Sukhoi Superjet 100 accident at Moscow will inevitably examine the effect of passengers’ stopping to retrieve cabin luggage during evacuation.

While the phenomenon has been highlighted during previous emergencies, the nature of the 5 May accident and the high number of fatalities – more than half those on board – is likely to raise questions as to whether lives were lost as a direct result.

Preliminary information from eyewitness video indicates that the aircraft came to a halt in a nose-up attitude, probably as a result of damage to the main landing-gear during its hard touchdown at Moscow Sheremetyevo.

From the time at which the aircraft stopped some 15s passed before the forward right-hand exit slide deployed followed by the forward left-hand slide about 10s later.

The aft pair of exits would have been unusable, owing to the intense fire surrounding the rear fuselage, and the Superjet 100 is not fitted with overwing exits – although passenger video evidence of fire on the upper wing surfaces would probably have rendered them unavailable in any case.

As a result the passengers seated in the fire-hit rear section of the cabin, comprising the last 10 or so seat rows, would probably have had to wait to progress along the upward-sloping aisle while passengers in the forward rows cleared the aircraft.

Aeroflot’s Superjets are typically configured with 87 seats including 12 in a four-abreast business cabin and 75 economy seats in a five-abreast layout.

The aircraft operating the ill-fated flight SU1492 was carrying 73 passengers which meant more than four out of every five seats was occupied.

Aeroflot claims the evacuation was conducted in 55s although video images show individuals – whether passengers or crew is unclear – descending the forward right-hand slide around 70s after its deployment, with firefighters applying extinguishing agent shortly afterwards.

The footage also clearly shows passengers leaving with large suitcases and other baggage, indicating that the evacuation was not optimal.

“Passengers will endeavour to collect their belongings prior to evacuating an aircraft, particularly where danger to life is not evident,” the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority stated in a cabin safety bulletin last year.

“It is essential that cabin crew are trained to be assertive in directing passengers to leave personal belongings behind in an evacuation, and what to do in the event of non-compliance with those instructions.”

CASA states that marketing initiatives and commercial pressure, as well as larger overhead luggage bins, “encourage” passengers to travel with more cabin baggage. Passengers are also likely to try salvaging high-value items.

The authority cites a US National Transportation Safety Board study in 2000 which interviewed over 400 passengers, and found half of them admitted to attempting to remove a bag during evacuation, and that passengers might even impede the flow by trying to move in the opposite direction.

In a paper published last year the UK’s Royal Aeronautical Society states that the proliferation of mobile phones had highlighted the problem, but that such behaviour was not new. It refers to a Pacific Western Airlines Boeing 737-200 fire in Calgary in 1984 during which passengers paused to retrieve luggage while evacuating.

The RAeS study highlights several other accidents involving fire – such as the BA 777-200 at Las Vegas in 2015 and the Emirates 777-300 at Dubai the following year, both non-fatal – in which passengers were observed to leave the aircraft with baggage, including large suitcases.

At least one passenger from the British Airways Boeing 777-200 which crashed on approach to London Heathrow in 2008 re-entered the aircraft, after evacuating, to locate personal belongings, it adds.

“Many operators are being restrictive on hold luggage, possibly in order to speed up turnround times,” the study says. “Some operators now charge passengers for checking in hold baggage, and impose high charges if cabin baggage is found to be too big during the check-in [or] boarding process and has to go in the hold.”

Regulators including the US FAA and UK Civil Aviation Authority have warned of the risks associated with attempting to retrieve luggage at critical moments.

But the RAeS study raises the question as to whether the message is being delivered properly to passengers.

“Some operators, in an attempt to capture passenger attention during pre-flight safety briefings, have produced clever and often quite humorous briefing routines or videos,” it states.

“However, there is some question as to whether passengers adequately recognise the gravity of such briefings, or actually understand the important safety information being provided.”

Russian airframer Irkut has promoted the large overhead luggage bins on its new MC-21 – production of which is being brought closer to that of the Superjet 100 – but it is also offering an optional remote-controlled electromechanical lock for the bins, as a safety feature.

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