Ever since Delta Connection flight 4951 made its emergency one-wheeled landing at JFK on September 25th, people who've watched the video and heard the flight attendant repeatedly commanding the passengers to keep their "Heads down! Stay down!" have been asking me questions about the reasons for the procedure.
What all this made me realize was how little most travelers really know about why things work the way they do and why crew members ask them to do certain things. Maybe, I thought, if more people understood that the flight crew and airlines are truly looking out for their safety, they'd be less annoyed and more willing to cooperate.
The question I was asked most frequently after the Delta Air Lines incident was why the flight attendant kept screaming her orders over and over again. Some people thought she sounded frantic, but, in fact, she was doing exactly what she'd been trained to do. The fact is that the passengers needed constant direction. In an emergency, people tend to panic, freeze, or go blank. They don't necessarily hear what they're being told the first time. And if that flight attendant had stopped repeating her orders, people would likely have picked up their heads to see what was going on. Or they might even have tried to get up.
Another question I kept hearing was why the cabin had gone dark in the video? Most people seemed to think it was the result of some kind of electrical failure. But it is standard procedure (at Delta) for the cabin lights to be turned off prior to an emergency landing as well as all takeoffs and landings. The reason is that these are the two times when a plane is most likely to crash. Your eyes need to be accustomed to the dark so that, if lights started blinking and flashing, if sparks were flying, or if fire broke out--any of which are likely to happen in a crash, you'd still be able to see in order to find your way out as quickly as possible.
Safety is also the reason why you're told to stow your tray tables, make sure your bags are completely under the seat in front of you, and return your seat backs to the upright position before landing. Airline personnel need to make sure that if you needed to get out in a hurry, you wouldn't have to squeeze past someone else's tray, wriggle around a reclining seat back, or trip over yours or someone's luggage.
You may also have noticed that you're asked to keep your window shades open, day or night, during landing. Again, it's for your own safety. In case of a crash, the flight attendants need to see out in order to assess the situation and determine the safest and quickest way to evacuate the passengers safely from the airplane.
Another big issue revolves around the use of cell phones. Why can't you keep your phone on past departure and prior to landing? Because the pilots communicate with the control tower via radio, and cell phones interfere with other radio frequencies -- you know how your car radio sounds with your cell phone close by. Surely you would want your pilot to be able to hear the tower clearly when he's getting instructions for landing your plane.
Other rules that people seem to consider arbitrary and designed specifically to inconvenience them have to do how and where they can or can't stow their carry-on baggage. Why can't they put their bags in the First Class closet even though there's plenty of room? That's because there's a maximum weight (the FAA has designated/approved) the closet doors have been designed to withstand, and if, in an accident, the bags were dislodged and the door flew open, the luggage that tumbled out not only may injure the flight attendant, obstruct a potential exit, potentially injure a passenger, but also it would be strewn in the aisle, and block access to the exits.
And what about the restrictions on who can or cannot sit in a row with an emergency exit? Again, it's to make sure that if you need to get to that exit, you need someone who is strong enough to remove a 45 pound window, and not have the exit blocked with anyone who's incapacitated in any way and unable to move quickly and evacuate.
So, the next time you fly, before you get annoyed when a flight attendant asks you to do something, please stop and remind yourself that he or she is following the rules that were designed for your safety.