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!”
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 Aeroflot, Qatar 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.”