This article discusses several cases of ambiguous emergency communication between the flight crew and the cabin crew — some occurring during public address (PA) system announcements to passengers. The contexts are evacuation scenarios and rapid-deplaning scenarios in commercial air transport operations. Misuse of terminology by crewmembers, poorly worded intentions of the pilot-in-command (PIC), and misunderstandings by passengers have been among factors that led to close calls and unexpected outcomes, according to selected sources, including accident report excerpts in the Accidents and Serious Incidents section.
Ineffective Emergency Communication — This outcome may be attributed to issues such as: pilots or flight attendants failing to share critical information; unwarranted delays before communicating about an imminent threat to safety; misjudgments or misinterpretations of what someone observed; imprecise or incorrect terminology; or, significant errors while passing safety-critical information among flight deck/cabin crewmembers under high stress.
Rapid Disembarkation — Also called rapid deplaning, this procedure means the expedited exiting of passengers and crew from a parked aircraft utilizing the boarding entrance(s) and the associated airport infrastructure (airbridge, jetway or boarding stairs) or the aircraft airstairs.
Emergency Evacuation — This means the most expeditious actions and commands possible are required compared with a rapid deplaning event. The procedure requires using all available exits to empty the aircraft of occupants as quickly as possible.
In a January 2020 document cited in References below, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) characterises such situations this way: “Communication, as well as transferring information, enhances situational awareness, allows problem solving to be shared amongst crewmembers by enabling individual crewmembers to contribute appropriately and effectively to the decision-making process. Inadequate communications between crewmembers and other parties such as ground personnel, may lead to a loss of situational awareness, a breakdown in teamwork and ultimately to a bad decision or series of decisions which result in a serious incident or even a fatal accident.”
Experience also shows that an absence of fatalities, serious injuries or aircraft damage in typical events of this nature should not cause complacency. The cases reviewed reveal issues such as:
- Flight attendants initiating an evacuation in the absence of an evacuation order from, or any coordination with, the flight crew;
- Inadequate training of flight attendants to competently use the interphone to provide real-time information to the flight crew, in context of diverse and unfamiliar interfaces used on the same types of aeroplane; and,
- Confusion on the part of the pilot-in-command (PIC) and/or flight attendants in ordering evacuation versus rapid deplaning.
The Optimal Emergency Communication section highlights a few examples of guidance issued in a January 2020 publication — IATA Cabin Operations Safety Best Practices Guide, Edition 6 — by a committee of international experts.
Optimal Emergency Communication
Abbreviated examples of optimal emergency communication in the following bullet points are covered in detail by the previously cited IATA best practices:
- Effective cooperation and coordination — within a safety culture of “high mutual assistance, low discord, and timely communication and feedback” — reduce the likelihood of unmitigated safety threats (primarily human errors) that can kill or seriously injure people aboard or near an aeroplane.
- The best practices describe circumstances in which the SCCM or other flight attendants would be expected to initiate an evacuation: “An evacuation should be initiated by the PIC; however, in catastrophic events, the PIC may not be able to give this instruction. Cabin crew should be trained to recognize the situations where they are permitted to initiate an evacuation without waiting for an order, and that they may only do so once the aircraft is stationary with engines powered down. … If cabin crew consider that an evacuation may be required, they must attempt to contact the flight crew in order to inform them of the situation and await instructions. If contact with the flight crew is not possible, cabin crew should initiate the evacuation.
Suggested circumstances include: a fire inside or outside the aircraft that is getting worse, dense smoke in the cabin that is threatening life, ditching [and,] obvious destruction of the aircraft. … As it is important to keep the flight deck door closed wherever possible to prevent the spread of smoke, the actions taken by flight crew will very much depend on the information provided by cabin crew via the interphone.”
- Air carriers should ensure strong foundational knowledge among personnel of their functional roles, their authority (during normal operations and emergency operations) and the exact scope of responsibilities of flight crew and cabin crew, such as constant awareness of principles of operational control and safe conduct of a flight.
- In the event of incapacitation of any aircraft crewmember, all personnel should be aware of alternate role(s) and actions they might have to assume, especially communication during an emergency.
- Cabin crewmembers should demonstrate satisfactory understanding/fluency in using the company-designated common language during their training and testing, and while communicating and performing duties during normal, abnormal and emergency operations.
- Emergency communication competence includes repeating face-to-face or interphone instructions received from other crewmembers (i.e., performing a “read-back”) to confirm the accuracy of critical facts and mutual understanding.
- The cabin crew and flight crew also should acquire skills to communicate about “significant operational events in normal, abnormal and emergency situations” via signals and commands. Levels of competence established by the airline should facilitate consistently safe closure, arming, disarming and opening of doors; jumpseat occupancy and restraint; and communication via designated verbal methods (e.g., interphone), visual cues, non-verbal audible cues, cabin crew call systems, etc.
- Emergency communication competence includes preventing unwarranted distraction of the flight crew at critical stages of flight (e.g., including periods requiring compliance with sterile flight deck regulations).
- Immediate emergency communication from cabin crew to flight crew also is essential to deal with signs, including subtle clues and sensations, of aeroplane depressurisation.
- The best practices say, “Cabin crew should be competent in the use of the interphone and the procedures used for calling the flight deck, receiving calls from the flight deck, and handling calls between members of the cabin crew under normal, abnormal and emergency situations. When urgent contact is required from the cabin to the flight deck, the appropriate emergency call button/code should be used on the interphone handset.”
- Guidance from the airline also should include details of actions and timing to report and document discrepancies or situations in which critical equipment — such as emergency locator transmitter, torches (flashlights), smoke detectors, fire extinguishers or personal breathing equipment — is discovered to be “faulty, missing or does not satisfy operational requirements.”
Accidents and Incidents
B763, Chicago O'Hare IL USA, 2016 — On 28 October 2016, an American Airlines Boeing 767-300 made a high speed rejected takeoff after an uncontained right engine failure. … Thirty-five seconds after the aircraft had come to a stop, the captain called for the evacuation checklist. The second and third steps in this checklist involve depressurising the aircraft, which the captain subsequently stated took “a long time.”
The cabin crew began the evacuation as soon as the aircraft stopped, with the first exit (2L) being opened by one of the cabin crew 10 seconds after the aircraft stopped, and the adjacent 3L exit being opened by a passenger at about the same time. The front exits 1L and 1R were opened 18 and 22 seconds after the aircraft stopped and finally exit 4L was opened 38 seconds after the stop.
There was no record of evacuation from exit 1R but the first passenger out on the left hand side was recorded using the left hand overwing evacuation slide 15 seconds prior to left engine shutdown — and spool-down took a further 10 seconds. …
[The captain] stated that whilst [the evacuation] checklist was being run, he could hear a “commotion” on the other side of the flight deck door and realised that the cabin crew had begun an evacuation. He added that after completing the fourth step in the evacuation checklist, which was to shut down the left engine, he had made a cabin PA [i.e., an announcement on the public address system] ordering an evacuation, and [that he] had activated the emergency evacuation signal switch.
The crew then completed the remainder of the checklist and vacated the flight deck into the cabin. … They were met by the senior cabin crew member (SCCM), who informed [flight deck crew] that all passengers and all the other cabin crew were already off the aircraft.
The only serious injury during the evacuation was to a passenger who … subsequently stated that, on reaching the ground after using the left overwing exit slide, he “stood up to get away from the airplane and was blown over by the jet blast coming from the back of the left engine.”
A320, en-route, east of Cork Ireland, 2017 — On 2 November 2017, the flight crew of an Airbus A320 climbing out of Cork detected a “strong and persistent” burning smell and, after declaring a MAYDAY, returned to Cork, where confusing instructions from the crew resulted in a combination of the intended precautionary rapid disembarkation and an [unintended] emergency evacuation using escape slides. …
After stopping on the runway for an assessment of the situation, it was judged safe to taxi to stand and once there, a “rapid disembarkation” was ordered which was misinterpreted by some of the 143 passengers as an emergency evacuation and resulted in the overwing exits being used by some. …
Once on the stand, the aircraft engines were shut down and the crew made a further assessment of the situation noting that fumes were still present in the flight deck. After a brief exchange with both the [SCCM] and the attending ground staff, the captain made a PA announcement saying “Attention, Attention, this is the Captain, disembark the aircraft immediately” as per the option specified in [company standard operating procedures] separately from an emergency evacuation.
Following this announcement, most passengers exited the aircraft using the left side doors at the front and rear of the cabin but passengers in the emergency exit seat rows opened the overwing emergency exits and “approximately 32 passengers disembarked onto the aircraft wings” of which half then used the corresponding escape slides. …
It was noted that Airbus Flight Crew Operating Manual (FCOM) does not include reference to “rapid disembarkation” and the procedure which the captain followed had been formulated by the airline. … The third edition (2017) of the IATA Cabin Operations Safety Best Practices Guide was noted to include … a suggested procedure which stressed that the announcement used to initiate a rapid disembarkation “should be different from the (emergency) evacuation command.”
B773, Paris CDG France, 2013 — On 28 July 2013, with passengers still boarding an Air France Boeing 777-300, an abnormal “burnt” smell was detected by the crew and then thin smoke appeared in the cabin. The captain and the relief co-pilot left the flight deck to look for the source of the smell.
Soon afterwards the cabin crew member at door 3D/G contacted the flight deck and reported to the remaining pilot that there was “a smell of sulphur in the area of door 5,” adding that passengers at the rear of the cabin seemed worried and were asking questions about the origin of the smell. On return to the flight deck, the captain decided to order an evacuation of the aircraft.
Detecting “the onset of panic,” the chief flight attendant [SCCM] made a PA asking passengers to remain in their seats. Cabin crew at doors 3 and 4 armed the evacuation slides and those at doors 3G, 4 and 5 — then explained to relevant passengers their role as facilitators in the event of an evacuation.
The ramp area manager then contacted the [flight] crew and reported that smoke seemed to be coming from the APU [auxiliary power unit], which prompted the crew to shut it down. Then, forty-five seconds after his initial PA, the captain made a further PA [ordering:] “Cabin crew, this is the cockpit, evacuate the passengers via the doors, only via the doors.”
IATA Cabin Operations Safety Best Practices Guide, Edition 6, International Air Transport Association (IATA), January 2020, (Edition 7, 2022, is available for sale on the IATA website).
Australian Transport Safety Bureau
Royal Aeronautical Society