Rapid Disembarkation is the expedited exit 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.
Rapid disembarkation protocols can be initiated at any time that an aircraft is on-stand with an airbridge connected or boarding steps in place and passengers aboard. The decision to initiate rapid disembarkation is likely to be taken in response to an occurrence involving some aspect of pre or post flight ground handling activity.
There are a great number of activities that must take place to ready a large passenger aircraft for each flight. These include:
Additional maintenance activity such as rectification of minor mechanical deficiencies or tyre changes may also be required and, where possible, will be accomplished at the boarding gate. Given the operational imperative to "keep the aircraft moving", every attempt is made to minimise the amount of time that an aircraft spends on the ground between flights. As a consequence, many of the activities listed above are accomplished concurrently. This often means that passenger offload or, more usually, passenger boarding is underway whilst the aircraft is being fuelled, loaded and catered. In proximity to the aircraft in question, other planes are continuously arriving at or departing from adjacent gates, either under tow or self powered. There also is significant vehicular traffic in support of those aircraft.
Every effort is made to ensure that all ground support activities are carried out efficiently and safely. However, accidents occur, machinery malfunctions, and situations sometimes arise which pose a potential risk to the passengers in the process of boarding. These risks might include, but are not limited to:
- fuel spills
- smoke or fumes, from a variety of potential sources, entering the aircraft cabin
- a fire in proximity to the aircraft caused by malfunctioning ground support equipment
- an accident, either directly involving the aircraft in question, one on an adjacent stand or ground support vehicles in proximity to the aircraft
- a bomb threat
Although such cases are rare, when they do occur the most prudent course of action is often the rapid disembarkation of passengers from the affected aircraft. Incidents have shown that passengers may not appreciate the important difference between rapid disembarkation and emergency evacuation so it it important that instructions to the passengers are absolutely clear and unambiguous.
The Company Operations Manual (COM), as expanded (where applicable) by the Company Flight Attendant Manual (FAM) and Company Ground Handling Manual, will provide guidance for ground operations inclusive of any restrictions imposed on concurrent activities. As an example, some Companies (and some airports) do not allow refueling with passengers on board unless Rescue and Fire Fighting Services are in attendance.
Whilst all crew are responsible for passenger safety, the COM should specify that any decision to initiate any unplanned disembarkation, and the method by which it will be achieved, is the responsibility of the Captain or, in his absence his designate (First Officer or Flight Attendant) or, in certain circumstances, another appropriately trained and designated Company employee. The latter situation is intended to accommodate circumstances where the COM allows for commencement of passenger boarding before members of the flight crew are present.
The designated individual has overall responsibility for passenger safety during the embarkation/disembarkation process. As a consequence, the ground agent and cabin supervisor should seek the designated individual's approval prior to commencing the boarding process. The designated individual should be inside the aircraft whenever passengers are embarking, on board or disembarking. Should a situation arise that has the potential to put the passengers at risk, the designated individual is responsible for determining the most appropriate course of action, initiating that action and broadcasting the intended actions to ATC with a request for any needed external assistance.
In the event of a situation which warrants the evacuation of the aircraft, the Captain or designated individual will first determine the immediacy of the threat and then decide on the most appropriate course of action be it an Emergency Evacuation or a Rapid Disembarkation. They will then initiate the chosen action by use of a coded phrase as specified in the COM. For Rapid Disembarkation, many operators use the phrase "ATTENTION CABIN CREW, CLEAR THE AIRCRAFT IMMEDIATELY" but there are also other execution phrases in use.
Upon hearing the execution phrase for Rapid Disembarkation, the cabin crew and ground staff will, if necessary, first reverse the passenger flow on the airbridge or boarding stairs so passengers about to embark are moving away from the aircraft. At the same time, the In-Charge Flight Attendant will make a public address system announcement advising the on-board passengers of the need for immediate deplanement. The announcement will include the following instructions:
- Leave all personal belongings behind
Note: Passengers nearest the door may still have their bags in their hands and will be very reluctant to leave them; other passengers seeing some people carrying bags off and will want to take theirs too.
- Leave the aircraft via the stairs or the bridge positioned at the front (front and back or as appropriate) of the aircraft
Note: If disembarking onto the tarmac, many passengers may then want to stand and gawp, and take pictures. The crew must be prepared to be assertive to keep everyone safe!
- Move away from the aircraft (back into the boarding lounge or towards the terminal as appropriate)
- Refrain from smoking
- Further information will be available once everyone is off of the aircraft
In the event that electrical power is interrupted, a megaphone will be used or shouted instructions will be provided.
Cabin crew in the isle(s) will reinforce the PA announcement, especially the instruction to leave items behind, and make every attempt to ensure that passengers deplane as quickly as possible. Assistance will be provided to any passengers for which it is required. As the last passengers are deplaning, the cabin crew will conduct a sweep of the aircraft, inclusive of galleys and toilets, to ensure that all passengers have disembarked. The cabin crew will then leave the aircraft.
On 2 July 2021, during pre-departure loading of a Boeing 777-300 at Heathrow prior to passenger boarding with only the operating crew on board, a rear hold fire warning was annunciated and smoke and fumes subsequently entered the passenger cabin. The Investigation found that the source was a refrigerated container which had been subject to abnormal external impact prior to or during loading causing a short circuit in its battery pack. The refrigeration system involved was found by design to inhibit fire following a short circuit but it was noted that QRH response procedures did not apply to the circumstances.
On 27 October 2019, an under-floor hold fire warning was annunciated in the flight deck of a Boeing 737-900 which had been pushed back at Paris CDG and was about to begin taxiing. Since there were no signs of fire in the passenger cabin or during an emergency services external inspection, a non-emergency disembarkation of all occupants was made. The hold concerned was then opened and fire damage sourced to the overheated lithium battery in a passenger wheelchair was discovered. The Investigation identified a number of weaknesses in both the applicable loading procedures and compliance with the ones in place.
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 emergency evacuation using escape slides. The Investigation highlighted the necessity of clear and unambiguous communications with passengers which distinguish these two options and in particular noted the limitations in currently mandated pre flight briefings for passengers seated at over wing emergency exits.
On 14 October 2017, a Boeing 777-300ER en route to Sydney declared a MAYDAY and diverted to Adelaide after the annunciation of a lower deck hold fire warning and the concurrent detection of a burning smell in the flight deck. The remainder of the flight was completed without further event and after landing a precautionary rapid disembarkation was performed. The Investigation found that the fire risk had been removed by the prescribed crew response to the warning and that the burning which had occurred had been caused by chafing of a wiring loom misrouted at build.
On 13 March 2013, smoke and fumes were immediately evident when the cable of an external GPU was connected to an ERJ170 aircraft on arrival after flight with passengers still on board. A precautionary rapid disembarkation was conducted. The Investigation found that a short circuit had caused extensive heat damage to the internal part of the aircraft GPU receptacle and minor damage to the surrounding structure and that the short circuit had occurred due to metallic FOD lodged within the external connecting box of aircraft GPU receptacle.
On 26 January 2006, when fixed ground electrical power was connected to an Avro RJ100 which had just reached its destination parking gate at Zurich, a flash fire occurred which was visible in the flight deck and an emergency evacuation was ordered. As the air bridge was by this time attached to door 1L,the cabin crew deplaned the passengers that way and no slides were deployed. The Investigation concluded that the fire had been caused by contamination of the ground power connector with ramp de icing fluid and found that there has been similar previous events.