Interior of Asiana Flight 214 Boeing 777. Photo courtesy of NTSB

Why Flyers Need to Listen to Those Flight Attendant Instructions

Lessons to be learned from Asiana Flight 214

After decades in the airline and aviation industry there is one group of aviation professionals I always pay attention to, even though they are usually ignored. As someone who has been traveling the globe on the world’s airlines for more than 40 years, I’m here to say I’m one of those people who listen to the flight attendant safety message on every flight I take. I know it so well I can do (and have done) the message almost verbatim. People think flight attendants are there to serve you food and beverage and help you with your overhead bin luggage, But they are mainly there for your safety in case of an emergency.

I had the opportunity to see flight attendant training up close and personal during a visit to Korea Air for a package of stories I did for Aviation Week and Aviation Daily in April 2008. The facility, at the carrier’s Gimpo International Airport headquarters, had a fuselage that simulated different types of accidents. There was also a huge pool used to practice water evacuations. I always respected flight attendants, and it rose even higher after that visit. While I didn’t get to see the training in action, I was given a briefing on what training and recurrent training was required to be a flight attendant, which reinforced my belief that these professionals are far more than drink servers.

Saturday, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 from Shanghai, China, crash landed at San Francisco International Airport. Early reports from the scene indicate that once the Boeing 777 landed, the atmosphere onboard was chaotic and smoky, but not panicked. While any loss of life is tragic and considering what happened, that there were so many survivors shows the importance of strong crew training and the design of modern airliners. With more than 300 people on board, it’s unlikely every passenger was personally helped by a flight attendant, but their presence helped others facilitate the quick emptying of the aircraft.

Back in 1994, I wrote for a weekly (now defunct) newsletter called Commuter/Regional Airline News. On Oct. 31, 1994, an American Eagle ATR-72 crashed in Roselawn, Ind., on its way to Chicago O’Hare International Airport. I spoke to a pilot for a story and after the interview, he offered me these great tips on what you can do to increase your chances of surviving a crash, and they are ones I use to this very day.

— When an emergency is declared, believe it - and be prepared. Even when an accident is happening, many passengers don’t believe it (and this did happen on the Asiana flight) and they aren’t prepared when it actually happens.

— Listen to flight attendant directions. They are trained to get you out of an aircraft safely and quickly, so don’t hesitate.

— Always wear closed shoes. In an accident, you don’t know what could be on the floor and if you’re wearing closed shoes, you are protected from things including glass, metal, hot surfaces and liquids.

— Count the number of rows away you are from the nearest exit. I make it a point to sit near an exit and I count the rows and remember that number. It could be the difference between life and death.

— Keep cash, your cell phone and some form of ID in your pocket. When you’re getting off a damaged plane, you don’t know where you’ll be, and you won’t have time to grab purses or overhead bags.

As the National Transportation Safety Board continues its investigation, we won’t know the full story of what happened inside that airplane after it came to a stop on the ground. But the fact that more than 300 passengers were able to get out of a burning jumbo jet took planning and direction. And while there are conflicting press reports, many stories lauded the flight attendants on board Asiana Flight 214, especially cabin manager Lee Yoon-hye, for getting passengers out quickly. And this illustrates why, on your next flight, you need to listen to your flight attendants and have your escape plan in place, just in case.