It’s the last thing you ever want to happen to you on a flight. But knowing how to navigate an emergency landing could mean the difference between life or death. That’s why airlines are required to play those cutesy airline safety videos—as well as put handy illustrated manuals in the back of every seat. The only trouble? No one pays attention. Which is exactly why an emergency situation can spiral out of control so quickly, says Lily Schwartz, a 13-year flight attendant with JetBlue, who’s now pursuing a career as a pilot.
“When things go south, I’m the one to prepare the cabin. If you listen to what we say during the safety briefing, you will not only save your own life—you can save another person’s life, too.”
Below, eleven things every passenger should (and shouldn’t) do in an emergency landing.
The first thing flight attendants do is ensure that everyone is seated. Make their job easier by staying put, fastening your seatbelt, and ensuring your luggage isn’t blocking the aisle—that way there are no obstacles in the event of an evacuation.
Keep Kids Nearby
If your family is spread throughout the cabin, and there’s enough time, a flight attendant can help put you back together. “I always scan the cabin for children, it’s just always on my mind,” explains Schwartz, “I’ll make sure all the kids are accounted for, and then try to reseat the family so they can be together.” If you’re traveling with an infant, keep him or her on your lap.
“Remain seated” is a phrase flight attendants repeat often during emergency situations. And for good reason: the more confusion spreads, the less likely they’ll actually be able to help. “Do exactly what the cabin crew tells you,” Frank D’Elia, Vice President of Operations at Long Island’s Academy of Aviation, says, noting that since every evacuation scenario is slightly different, it’s important to absorb each specific instruction as it’s being announced.
Get into Position
In an emergency landing, passengers are asked to place their heads on their laps. This stops them from moving around the cabin, but also braces them if the plane is coming down on impact.
Remove High Heels
Take off any high heels, cumbersome accessories, or excess clothing that could seriously impede the evacuation process. When it comes time to evacuate, you don’t want to be tripping yourself—or others—on your way out of the cabin.
Only Reach for the Oxygen Mask When it Deploys
Oxygen masks are programmed to deploy above 10,000 feet altitude; however, the crew can manually deploy masks if necessary. If you don’t see masks deploying, then you probably don’t need them.
Try to calm other passengers who are panicking, and don’t ask the cabin crew endless questions. They are only passing along information as they receive it from the cockpit, and pestering them only adds to the tension.
“Most people don’t understand how an airplane flies,” points out D’Elia. So while it’s easy to assume the plane is seconds from falling out of the sky, 99.9% of the time, that’s not true. “Keep calm, follow procedure,” he urges. And try not to end up like one passenger Schwartz recalls, who, upon seeing smoke in the cabin screamed, “We’re all going to die!” and began frantically trying to open the emergency exit door.
Wait to Evacuate
Just like on any other landing, wait until the flight attendant says it’s time to get up. Immediately standing up and jostling your way through the crowds to get to the door is the least helpful thing you can do.
Don’t Grab Your Neighbor’s Life Vest
“The life vest is underneath your seat, not in front,” points out Schwartz. Once you’ve found the vest under your seat, place it over your head and tighten the straps. Wait for instructions, however: inflating it inside the plane isn’t good either, as it can disrupt the evacuation process.
Leave Your Bag
Understandably, the urge is to grab your belongings on your way out of the plane. But Schwartz reminds us there are bigger priorities than surviving with your laptop intact. “Forget shoes, forget everything. In a real life emergency, there could be an electric fire, there could be anything. Just get out!” And if you see others struggling to leave, let the flight attendants help them: “Some people freeze—you need to wake them up, so they can leave as quickly as possible. You’ve got to give them a bit of a push.”