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How NOT to Survive an Airline Crash

Yesterday’s crash landing of Emirates flight EK521 in Dubai generated a flood of images of panicked travelers, loaded down with their carry-on bags, fleeing the burning B777-300. The headline of Bloomberg’s coverage of the incident said it all: “Crashing, Burning Planes Don’t Stop Passengers From Grabbing Their Luggage.”

That’s newsworthy, but it’s not news. Last summer, when a London-bound British Airways B777 caught fire during take-off at Las Vegas airport, there were similar images of passengers escaping the smoking plane, once again encumbered with arms-full of laptops and purses and roll-aboards and so on.

And in 2013, when Asiana flight 214 crash-landed at San Francisco airport, the scene was the same: fleeing travelers who, in the midst of the smoke and chaos, took precious seconds to secure their belongings before exiting the aircraft.

It should probably go without saying that passengers put themselves in real danger of injury or death by attending to their possessions instead of remaining singularly focused on quitting the plane. And the preoccupation with carry-ons not only puts the bag owner’s life at risk; it also puts other passengers in harm’s way, as well as first responders.

Whatever can be said of the patently self-destructive behavior, it can’t be dismissed as simple ignorance. It’s a standard part of every airline’s emergency procedures to instruct passengers to leave their possessions behind when evacuating the aircraft.

We fasten our seatbelts when told to do so, but we ignore what could be life-saving advice in the event of a real crisis. However it’s explained, that’s the irrefutable fact of the matter, as incident after incident after incident attests.

There’s obviously no simple fix for a propensity that seems to be rooted deep in the human psyche. But if awareness of our worst inclinations is the first step in overcoming them, then perhaps there’s hope that the images of the next crash will show fewer flyers clutching their belongings. It’s a matter of life and death.

Reader Reality Check

Choose: Your baggage or your life?

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After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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