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Christopher Muther

Is your laptop really more valuable than a life?

When an airliner needs to be evacuated, as this one did after catching fire in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 2015, precious seconds can be saved if passengers heed flight attendants’ instruction to leave belongings onboard.
When an airliner needs to be evacuated, as this one did after catching fire in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 2015, precious seconds can be saved if passengers heed flight attendants’ instruction to leave belongings onboard.(ANDRES GALLEGO/AFP/Getty Images/file)

The news that 41 people were killed when an Aeroflot plane made a fiery emergency landing at a Moscow airport earlier this month was tragic. But the reason why some of those passengers perished isn’t just tragic, it’s infuriating.

Several of the Aeroflot passengers who first evacuated the plane stopped to retrieve their carry-ons before exiting down emergency slides, causing a bottleneck in the single aisle plane and wasting precious seconds that may have allowed some seated farther back in the jet to escape.

Videos and photos posted on social media showed passengers walking away from the burning plane with their carry-ons. Others stood by and filmed the accident while screams from the plane can be heard in the distance.

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Maddening, yes, but not a new phenomenon. Despite the familiar safety announcement before every flight telling passengers to leave their belongings behind in the event of an emergency, the request is often ignored. Even those attention-grabbing safety videos don’t seem to be helping. More than a third of respondents in a British study last year said they would take their personal belongings in an emergency.

But studies aren’t necessary to show that passengers are ignoring safety announcements.

Travelers on an Emirates flight in 2016 were filmed rummaging for their carry-ons as the cabin filled with smoke. Flight attendants can be heard yelling for passengers to leave the plane.

The same scene unfolded on British Airways Flight 2276 in Las Vegas and Delta Flight 1086 in New York, both in 2015. Also on Asiana Flight 214 in San Francisco in 2013. And Cathay Pacific Flight 365 in Shanghai in 2011.

It’s firmly established. There is a problem with people ignoring safety warnings when it comes to retrieving their baggage during an emergency.

What isn’t established is how to stop it.

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One of the most straightforward ways to stop people from grabbing their carry-ons in an evacuation is to banish the luggage from the cabin. There is a strident group (myself among them) who believe that banning carry-ons from the main cabin would speed up the boarding process and cause less stress among passengers who are anxious there will be no space for their things when they board. In a perfect world — at least my perfect world — airlines would charge for carry-on bags, and make checked luggage free.

Sadly, that scenario is not going to happen. US airlines pulled in more than $4.5 billion in bag fees in 2017.

The industry has taken its strategy in the opposite direction. In March, American Airlines rolled out planes with extra large overhead bins that offer 40 percent more space to store carry-ons.

That’s great news for those who insist that their carry-ons stay close, but potentially bad news in the case of an emergency when passengers are grabbing for the 40 percent more items that they have wheeled on.

I understand that this may sound melodramatic. Despite the big headlines that air emergencies garner, planes are still one of the safest ways to travel. A Harvard study found that your chances of dying in a plane crash are 1 in 11 million, versus 1 in 5,000 in a car crash.

Still, why put any potential obstacle in the way of safety? The question should never be “Your luggage or your life?”

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The second potential fix for the problem seems more straightforward and more plausible. Smart locking overhead bins. When the seat belt light is on, the overhead bins automatically lock. It’s a solution and a feasible alternative.

“This is something airlines, plane makers, and regulators might want to think about,” said Patrick Smith, a local pilot, blogger, and author of “Cockpit Confidential.” He wrote an entry about the Aeroflot crash, aptly called “Deadly Stupidity in Moscow.”

“Though it presents complication in terms of weight, complexity, cost, and reliability.”

At last month’s Aircraft Interiors Expo in Germany, Airbus demonstrated a mockup of a strip of lighting under the bin, which would indicate whether the bin was full, partially in use, or empty using a traffic light system. Diehl Aviation introduced a system that allows passengers to reserve overhead bin space, all controlled via touch screen.

I’m not an aviation expert, but if it’s possible to add these features to an overhead bin, it seems a bin that locks when the seat belt light comes on would be quite easy to rig up in comparison.

The emergency locking bins could potentially end situations when a passenger wrestles his carry-on from a flight attendant during an evacuation while yelling “I’m taking it,” which is what happened during a 2016 American Airlines flight bound for Miami from Chicago. At the time, Robert Sumwalt, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, told the Chicago Sun-Times that he would consider implementing a fine for that kind of behavior. However, no fines were levied. The NTSB sent its concerns regarding carry-ons and emergency evacuations to the Federal Aviation Administration. To date there have been no changes in policy.

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What would be better than studying, guessing, and asking for recommendations? It’s time for the NTSB and the FAA to crack down on offenders who try to evacuate with their luggage with punishments and fines. It’s time for airlines and manufacturers to seriously look into installing automatic locking overhead bins.

What is perhaps the easier, most common sense solution? Follow instructions.

“In the event of an emergency, listen to flight attendant commands and leave all bags behind,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants. “Save your life or the life of a passenger behind you.”


Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther and on Instagram @Chris_Muther.