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Crewed Talk

The AirAsia Decompression – What the Crew Did Right

The AirAsia Decompression – What the Crew Did Right
Amanda Pleva

An in-flight decompression is a terrifying and unlikely event.

We’re led to believe quite the opposite when we watch the safety videos pre-flight: An attractive mother attaches her own oxygen mask, and then, bathed in flattering sunlight filtered in through the window of the airplane, smiles as she calmly reaches for the oxygen mask dangling overhead – never questioning its sudden presence, by the way – and, with the same countenance as serving him breakfast in bed, affixes the mask to the face of her loving son, whose eyes reply a sincere, “Thanks, Mom.”

Reality could not be more different. When a plane loses cabin pressure at cruising altitude, the threat of hypoxic hypoxia – the loss of oxygen to the lungs – comes very quickly. Hypoxia can cause symptoms such as headaches, loss of judgment, euphoria and eventually to lose consciousness altogether. At average cruising altitude without oxygen, the “time of useful consciousness,” as it’s called, would be as short as 20 seconds for an adult.

What the content, beautifully sunlit, oxygenated safety video family fails to show you is the second part of the decompression scenario, which involves a rapid descent to 10,000 feet of altitude, which is the highest altitude an aircraft can fly at without requiring a pressurized cabin, so that supplemental oxygen is no longer necessary and the plane can get clearance to safely land at the nearest airport.

As you’ve no doubt heard about by now, a decompression event took place on an AirAsia flight from Perth to Bali on Sunday, and interviews with many of the passengers were very critical of the crew, who they deemed “panicked” and “hysterical.” Examples given of their “hysterics” were shouts of “Brace! Brace! Brace!” “Emergency!” and “Passengers, get down!”

Oh, boy.

Now, I wasn’t there. I feel like I was, in a way, because there are plenty of cell phone videos of the event. (And seriously, what is it with people in emergencies taking videos? Is going viral that sacred?) But none of the videos back up the accusations made by the passengers, who all arrived safely thanks to the commands (screams) of the crew. The shouted instructions to fasten seatbelts and brace kept them safe from objects in the cabin becoming projectiles as well as from the jolting of an aircraft performing a rapid descent from 35,000 to 10,000 feet of altitude – something all pilots are very well-trained to do.

All flight attendants, from every airline and nation, are trained to shout commands that all differ but generally end up with the same goal. Whether it’s for a planned emergency landing, an unexpected water landing or cabin fire, you can be sure you’ll hear your crew screaming something at you. The cabin is going to be very loud in situations like that – hey, it’s like that under even the most normal circumstances – and adding a muzzle in the form of a rubber oxygen mask is going to complicate things a bit. And in the case of the AirAsia flight, there were loads of recorded announcements in various languages being automatically played during the event, so it was deemed very necessary to shout loudly above the cacophony of the cabin. Even without a noisy environment, we must shout in order to ensure we are heard and to convey the gravity of the situation.

Once the plane leveled off at 10,000 feet, it would be time for the pilots to contact operations and ATC, coordinating their landing and any required emergency services to meet the aircraft. I’d heard one of the AirAsia passengers railing against the crew for leaving them uninformed for, in her estimation, five minutes at that stage; as nerve-wracking as this pause must have felt, this was very unlikely due to the lack of professionalism of the crew. It’s simply putting things in priority order. First gain control of the situation, then discuss it with the flight attendants and passengers.

Is this what flying has become? Flight attendants are too afraid to enforce rules because of the threat of cell phones or even physical violence, while airlines like AeroflotQatar and VietJet have made no bones about the fact that their passengers want sexy crews more than anything. We as flight attendants are condemned for doing the ugly parts of our jobs, or just for being ugly. We are strung up for not letting passengers flout rules they don’t like, and then again for scaring people with emergency commands in an actual emergency…commands which prevented injuries and deaths. The customer is fighting to always be right…or just on TV, and the media coverage shows that they’re winning that war, since so many of the headlines focus on the performance critique of the crew instead of being grateful for the safe return of all passengers following a dangerous event. It’s hard to imagine what, in fact, these people were looking for at that moment – was the only acceptable answer ‘You’re going to be fine”? That comes after the flight attendants’ instructions are followed.

I can’t help but just feel awful for this crew. If they’d truly panicked, we would not once have heard the commands to brace or to fasten seatbelts. Today they are no doubt still reflecting on a very frightening experience (and they’re human beings – it was frightening for them as much as the passengers) just to have to also hear the same people they worked to protect bashing them while unaware of the emergency procedures of a decompression.

Let me be the first to say to that crew: “Thank you.”

[Photo: Shutterstock]

View Comments (10)

10 Comments

  1. USAoz

    October 17, 2017 at 5:21 pm

    yet another storm in a teacup. Also 20 seconds assumes that their oxygen masks didn’t work, which they all did apparently. Some brainiac decided cos his/her mask didn’t inflate it didn’t work.

  2. gpmHSV

    October 17, 2017 at 6:56 pm

    While I agree with this writer’s sentiments towards the AirAsia flight crew, she made one glaring mistake in her colorfully-worded leading paragraph describing the safety video. The mother puts HER OWN mask on first, then assists her child. We’re all told this over and over. I’m surprised this flight attendant got it backwards.

  3. EU-US

    October 18, 2017 at 5:20 pm

    In an emergency, the first job and top priority of the crew is to fly the plane and keep the passengers safe. Keeping them informed as well can be very nice and reassuring but that’s NOT their first job.In a chaotic situation like this they may not have the bandwidth to do that and they did the RIGHT thing focusing on what was most important. I understand passengers who complain that they were not informed for “5 full minutes” about what was actually going on. I’m sure it was scary as hell for the flight attendants too, they may not have been fully informed about what was happening since the captain and first officer had a checklist to go through and make sure they do the correct procedure above anything else, regardless of what the passengers think. Having 5 minutes of nerve wrecking fear and uncertainty is certainly not pleasant, but I would take it any day over a distracted captain who chooses to inform the passengers instead of focusing 100% on dealing with the emergency and telling everyone what happened after.

    I fly a lot and don’t get scared easily, but If I was there as a passenger, I’m sure I would have been scared as as well. But once it was over and I was told what happened and that we were now safe, I wouldn’t criticize the crew. I would be grateful that they did what they were trained to do and I would THANK THEM for getting us safely on the ground. Maybe people should try empathy for the crew as well before they criticize them for how they handled a situation which they most likely haven’t experienced in real life ever before. Crew members are people too, maybe the passengers they took care of should be a bit more grateful and less critical.

  4. ReiseGuyFred

    October 19, 2017 at 9:22 am

    Brings to mind the old mantra, in order:

    1. Aviate
    2. Navigate
    3. Communicate

    Yes stressful for passengers, but give flight deck and cabin crew credit for prioritizing a safe return to terra firma.

  5. seavisionburma

    October 19, 2017 at 9:30 am

    Published quote from one of the passengers on the flight:

    “It (the advice) was all in Asian or Thai or something. We couldn’t understand anything that was coming over the loudspeaker.”

    On a flight to Indonesia from Perth, I doubt the announcements over the cabin PA system were all “in Asian or Thai or something”

    *facepalm* Ashamed to be Australian seeing that

  6. sailor279

    October 19, 2017 at 12:04 pm

    How a person has the interest to video an emergency is beyond me. Probably the same idiot that complains that the FA’s were panicking and the pilot didn’t provide info soon enough. Have to agree with the above post that the flyers should be THANKING the pilots and crew for returning them to the ground safely — not criticizing their efforts in an emergency situation. As a frequent traveler, I try to express gratitude to both FA’s and pilots on each and every flight. Their jobs are tough enough and only made worse when they’re unfairly criticized by ignorant and ungrateful passengers.

  7. veeRob

    October 19, 2017 at 3:43 pm

    @gpmHSV Reading comprehension, eh?

  8. fuzfly

    October 19, 2017 at 4:23 pm

    Having been through this once myself, where from the announcement of ‘prepare for rapid descent’ through to the pilots having time to talk to us was more than 40 minutes. There was probably a couple of minutes (if that) of mild-strong worry, followed by ‘well it wasn’t explosive, we seem to be flying, it’s probably nothing to be too stressed about.. The flight crew have their job to do (keep the plane the right side up, hopefully with the wheels on some nice firm tarmac) while it’s ‘nice’ to know whats going on – I’d rather a busy crew was getting the stuff done that needs to be.

    Watching some of my fellow passengers, I can 100% understand why a crew would both be trained to, and shout simple instructions. While it probably makes you worry at the time, not breathing because you didn’t understand / hear etc is probably a worse outcome.

    What really surprised me was just how slow the ‘rapid descent’ was – now we started a few thousand feet higher, but as a passenger it really didn’t feel all that different than any other ‘coming into land’ descent – which is all explainable by maximum airspeed g-forces etc, but at the time it was interesting to find out.

  9. Global321

    October 20, 2017 at 7:21 am

    Oh Jackie… wrong on so many points.

    1. “Once the plane leveled off at 10,000 feet, it would be time for the pilots to contact operations and ATC, coordinating their landing and any required emergency services to meet the aircraft.” WRONG WRONG WRONG. Pilots would put their masks on and IMMEDIATELY communicate with ATC that they planned on a rapid descent. (What if a plane was below them or crossing!) The pilots were in constant contact with ATC.

    2. “If they’d truly panicked, we would not once have heard the commands to brace or to fasten seatbelts. ” WRONG WRONG WRONG. The brace command is to be given only when an emergency landing is to take place. There was no plan for an emergency landing. You should know better! The FA’s was panicking.

    3. Screaming “emergency” is not helpful. It is panicking.

    4. ““We commend our pilots for landing the aircraft safely and complying with standard operating procedure,” Ling Liong Tien, head of safety for AirAsia Group, said in a statement.” Note the specific absence of thanking the FA’s. Why” They failed to do their job. In short, they panicked!

    5. You railing against video is the real problem. Why so afraid of seeing what really happened? Flight crew unions need to end their opposition to the video of all flights. It would help convict problem passengers and remove problem FA’s.

    Let me add to the chorus of passengers who say… THE FLIGHT ATTENDANTS PANICKED! Blindly defending poor job performance is not helpful.

  10. aseg

    October 22, 2017 at 10:00 am

    Many years ago we (several profs with 30 students on a college trip to the Yucatan) were flying Aeromexico out of JFK to CUN . We were aloft ~15 minutes when most of the oxygen masks fell from the ceiling. No announcement for a few minutes as we sat in shock. Then a brief announcement to ignore the masks. Then another announcement to put them on. Then, with no announcement, the plane went into a steep dive. As we dove, the cabin grew very hot. No announcement.

    Meanwhile the FAs were in hysterics. One of the students on the flight had to calm one down (and for many years refused to fly again). We were in shock — we all thought we were going to die. It was only after we landed back at JFK that we learned the reason for the rapid descent (as per the post), plus discovering that mask oxygen is generated by a chemical reaction that caused the rapid temperature rise throughout the cabin.

    I have no idea whether this is typical of pilot / FA response to decompression failures or related to the training of the specific airline in question, but the response to this emergency could have been much better than it was.

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