Survive an Aircraft Evacuation

Survive an Aircraft Evacuation

Fire and Smoke Can Kill You

Fire and poisonous smoke can kill within minutes. There is no greater risk to an aircraft’s passengers and crew. When an aircraft evacuation is necessary, every second counts.

As a passenger, the chances of experiencing an aircraft evacuation are slim. Modern transports, large and small, have an amazing safety record. When you board a flight heading to your favorite business or vacation destination, listen to the safety announcements and take them seriously. Come up with a Game Plan to follow in the (unlikely) event of an evacuation. Then you can relax and enjoy the ride.

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Aircraft Evacuation Game Plan:

1. Dress for Survival

No Flip-Flops during an aircraft evacuationBefore you leave the house, dress for an evacuation. Flying in an airplane isn’t a fashion show. You’re probably not Kim or Kanye, so skip the fancy clothes. Wear comfortable shoes that allow you to run like hell. Leave the flip-flops, sandals, and high heals in your checked baggage; you can wear them when you get to the beach.

In winter months, dress for airport weather, not beach weather. If you are departing Minneapolis in January, wear long pants and a jacket in case you need to evacuate in sub-freezing conditions. You can put on the t-shirt and shorts when you arrive in Miami.

2. Find Two Escape Routes

As soon as you are seated, look for the two nearest emergency exits. Find one in front of you and one behind you. One of the exits should be something other than an over-wing exit. Over-wing exits may be near the engines. If there is an engine fire, you may not be able to use this exit.

Count the rows to the exits and come up with a memory mnemonic to remember them! The goal is to find the exits with your eyes closed. Smoke may force your eyes to involuntarily shut.

Emergency Exit for aircraft evacuation
Find at least two escape routes. One should be something other than an over-wing exit!
Safety Card for aircraft evacuation
Read the briefing card!

Listen to the safety announcements and read the safety briefing card. Seriously: Pick up the card and read it. For some reason, it’s become unsophisticated to read the card. Yes, I realize you’ve known how to buckle a seat belt since 1971, but you might not realize that the particular plane you’re in doesn’t have over-wing exits. It might also be helpful to know where your life vest is located. Every make and model of aircraft is different. Pick up the card and read it.

3. If an evacuation is necessary, leave your stuff behind!

It’s truly amazing and it happens every time there is an emergency evacuation. The aircraft is on fire and the emergency exits are open. What do passengers do? They open the overhead storage bins to retrieve their stuff.

Every second counts. An aircraft can become completely consumed by flames in a matter of minutes. The time you waste by grabbing your belongings might be a death sentence for you or a passenger behind you. Your stuff is not worth dying for.

After the evacuation, and the aircraft is safe, you’ll be able to get your stuff back. If the plane is on fire, your immediate survival is more important.

What about medicine? If you carry medicine you can’t live without for a day or two, put it in a fanny pack and wear it in the seat (fanny packs are still cool, right?). If it’s in a cooler in the overhead, just leave it. If you can’t get it back, a local hospital, pharmacy, or immediate care center will help you.

4. Last, but Not Least: Listen to the Crew!

The flight and cabin crew will be issuing very important instructions during an evacuation. Listen and follow directions. Although it’ll be your first evacuation, the crew has rehearsed it dozens of times. They know exactly what they’re doing.

How NOT to Evacuate:

On 3 August 2016, Emirates flight 521 crashed on landing in Dubai. Amazingly, all 282 passengers and 18 crew members on board survived the accident that destroyed the Boeing 777 aircraft. Sadly, one firefighter was killed while saving the lives of others.

As the evacuation began, passengers immediately opened overhead bins to retrieve their stuff. The crew repeatedly, desperately yelled “Leave everything! Leave your bags behind!”

The passengers wasted precious seconds grabbing their belongings. When you board your flight, make a point to remind yourself and your family: If there’s trouble, leave your stuff behind.

How fast can a fire spread? Watch the following video of a China Airlines 737 in Okinawa. The fire began at the gate due to a fuel leak. Within minutes, fire consumed the entire aircraft. All aboard escaped; there were no fatalities. Do you think it might be wise to leave your stuff on board and concentrate on evacuation? Yep!

Social Media Isn’t Worth it!

Please think twice about grabbing your phone and shooting video during an evacuation. While fumbling with a phone, you’re not concentrating on the Game Plan. Social media stardom is fleeting. Your Facebook fame won’t be worth it if you or a family member dies.

Flying is Really Safe! (Be Prepared)

Air travel is without a doubt the safest means of public transportation available. I’ll re-emphasize that both accidents highlighted above, although horrific, had no fatalities. Planning for an aircraft evacuation is no different than planning for a fire drill or tornado in a school or hotel. Have a plan in place, and enjoy the ride. If the unexpected happens, you will be ready and you’ll remember to…

Leave Your Stuff Behind!


  1. Very well put. What do they recommend if you are handicap and need help being evacuated? Maybe somehow just like buildings aircraft should have a cold water reservoir that sits on top of the plane’s fuselage with sprinklers all through the cabin and in case of a fire these would be able to douse the flames, what do you think Ken, could this be done? Or in short make aircraft with material that’s impossible for it to burn and is light so that it doesn’t bog down the aircraft.

    • Hi Joseph,

      To best answer your question concerning evacuation of disabled or wheelchair passengers, I’ll direct you to an excellent article on

      Your second question concerning improved fire fighting systems and aircraft materials is a tricky one. In theory, a 100% safe, crash-proof aircraft can be built for an enormous amount of money – let’s say 5 billion dollars per aircraft. The plane would be so heavy with safety equipment that it would be terribly inefficient. Passengers wouldn’t be able to afford a ticket on such an expensive machine. So the FAA and airplane manufacturers have to agree on methods to lower the manufacturing & operating costs and still create a machine that is reasonably safe and reliable. They must reach a delicate balance between safety and ticket price. Boeing, Airbus and the other manufacturers have done an excellent job of balancing safety and cost. The recent Emirates accident is a perfect example. Every passenger and crew member survived. The Boeing 777 did an amazing job of protecting it’s occupants during the crash. The fire retardant materials used in construction held off the fire long enough for everyone to reach safety.

      I hope that helps!
      Thanks for reading.

  2. As usual sir your information is outstanding! Please continue to expand our flying consciousness with your invaluable comments.

    Steve M
    Usually fly from KEWR

  3. Great post Ken, I believe a lot of pax grab their cabin bag as they have left all their vital documents in it. Who wants to be in a far off country with no id? I always make sure I have passport, wallet and switched off phone in my pockets so I can dash right past those without the foresight to consider worse case scenario….

    Blue skies and tailwinds

    Dave W

    • Hi Dave,

      An emergency evacuation is most definitely a worst case scenario. Your life may very well depend on getting off the aircraft in under 90 seconds. What I would like the traveling public to understand is that the passport, phone, drivers license, laptop with your life’s work, and your wedding photo do not matter. None of these things are required to exit a burning aircraft.

      I have had a lot of folks mention to me that they have a list of items they carry in the event of an evacuation. I purposely avoided mentioning lists of “stuff” to carry on your person because the list quickly becomes long and becomes a distraction to your main job of saving your life.

      In the event you evacuate and your personal documents are destroyed on the aircraft, you’ll be fine. Nations and airlines have procedures in place to handle this.

      When I travel, all my important stuff is in my computer bag carry on (OK, it’s a man-purse!). I have too many “important” documents to carry on my person. If I’m ever involved in an evacuation, guess what I’m carrying off the plane? Nothing! 🙂

      Thanks for the comments and thank you for reading!

  4. Excellent article Ken. It still shocks me everytime i see this video of people trying to pull their laptops and stuff off the overhead lock ! What makes me laugh is during normal landings many forget their stuff there !!! Anyways some are ready to lose their head and become famous on social media so let them take the risk and enjoy life the way they see it 😉

    Thank yo again

  5. I don’t fly very often (last time was over 10 years ago) but to me, common sense would prevail. Besides, now a days, even if you have your laptop on your trip, there’s cloud storage (OneDrive, iCloud, etc.) that can store things so even if you lose your laptop, you STILL have all your wedding photos, etc.

    Insurance will buy you a new laptop, it can’t save your life.

    If I fly and there’s an evacuation, I’m going to make sure me and my family get off the plane.

  6. Great clear article.
    I get mad at seeing people stop to retrieve luggage when evacuating. Why, people may ask. I lived near Manchester Airport, UK in 1985, just type ‘British Airtours Flight 28M’ into Wikipedia and see that 55 people died mainly through smoke inhalation within minutes! Note that the airport fire service reacted before the aircraft had even stopped and the Control Tower had sounded the alarm! Technology and design standards have improved since then, so flying is still the safest way to travel.
    I strongly agree to take note of two exit routes and carry important documents / passports in a light belt pouch. Scan documents on to a USB stick or on to cloud storage as suggested.
    If I ever have to evacuate an aircraft, I WILL obey the FAs instructions and anybody opening overhead bins will find themselves pushed along the aisle and out of the plane without baggage.

  7. Ken,
    Thanks for your comment and articles.
    Just new to your site and wonder if you could do an article on the different frequencies you use; from airports to mid flight. Are there rules which ones to use, who sets them and controls them so as not to clash? How do you as a pilot change frequencies, are they preset in the aircraft? Which ones to use in an emergency? Why do they all seem to have a decimal place?
    Thanks in anticipation

    • Hi Malcolm,
      Some of your questions may be answered here: Stuff Pilots Say.

      During an emergency, we would usually talk to whatever controller we are currently with. There is also an emergency frequency that is monitored by controllers and pilots worldwide. It comes in handy if a crew misses a handoff or dials in a wrong frequency. We can contact ATC on the emergency frequency and be directed to the correct frequency.

      Changing frequencies is easy. We have a knob with an inner and outer portion. The outer knob controls the whole numbers, the inner knob tunes the decimals. Air frequencies use 25 kHz spacing. If we are using 123.450 mHz, then the next available frequency is 123.475. Due to radio congestion, frequency separation in Europe was recently reduced to 8.33kHz to cram in more channels. Each air traffic control facility has a group of frequencies assigned to them. The controllers tell us each frequency change as we fly along.

      Thanks for reading!

  8. Glad you re-upped this Blog, Captain. Question. By my count it was all of 4 1/2 minutes before ARFF showed up. Seemed like a really, really long time. I understand the station may have been miles away from the incident location, but wow! I guess I just “assumed” ARFF would be on the spot in 90 seconds-ish. Too many movies, maybe?

    Great post, and thanks for all you do in the aviation community!

    • Hi Derek,

      As you might imagine, there are regulations that govern the response time for airport rescue and fire fighting teams. You can find them here: CFR Title 14, 139.319. It’s not a terribly long regulation and it’s interesting reading. The distance and times are based on runway locations. I suspect the most serious accidents are anticipated to be on a runway so that’s probably why they use runways as the primary reference. The reg also mentions “movement area available to air carriers;” that would include the terminal.

      Depending on the location of the fire house and terminal, 4 1/2 minutes might be well within the regulation guidance.

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