Galley Gossip: In-flight emergencies – what are the odds?

Standing at row 33 behind the beverage cart, I handed a passenger a Diet Coke with extra lime. That’s when another passenger came racing up behind me and yelled, “There’s a fire in the bathroom!”

A fire on the airplane is one of my biggest fears as a flight attendant. Only because I’m quite familiar with how quickly a fire can get out of control. Once, years ago, I lit an Aveda travel candle and placed it on a shelf in the bathroom of my crash pad. As luck would have it, the Aveda candle was housed in a silver tin that got so hot it melted the plastic shelf. The candle dropped into a wicker basket full of tissue. Within seconds the flames climbed the walls and jumped onto the fluffy toilet seat cover. To make a long story short, I frantically fought the fire and eventually was able to put it out. I was lucky that day.

I looked up the aisle at the lavatory the passenger was now pointing at, and though I couldn’t see any smoke, I turned to my colleague and said, “Call the Captain. I’ll be right back.”

Did I happen to mention that FAA was on board scrutinizing our every move?

My heart raced as I walked up the aisle. I had barely cracked the accordion door open when I heard passengers coughing loudly throughout the cabin. Smoke began billowing out of the trash receptacle. A cigarette, I guessed.

“I can’t breath!” I heard several passengers scream.

Quickly I shut the door, opened an overhead bin, grabbed a bottle of halon, pulled out the pin, and pushed the lavatory door back open. Pointing the hose at the fire, I pressed the lever and sprayed. I also prayed. Two seconds later a colleague handed me another bottle of halon. When that was empty, another tank was placed in my hands. The smoke grew thicker and thicker as the coughing got louder and louder. A giant hazmat-looking-hood that covers the entire head and provides oxygen while fighting fires was thrust upon me.

While I continued fighting the fire, my colleagues moved passengers and oxygen bottles away from the lavatory. Because the flight was full, passengers were doubled up. Then my colleagues passed out wet towels and instructed passengers to use them to cover their mouths.

As soon as the fire was extinguished, the Captain’s voice boomed, “Flight attendants, prepare for landing!”

Frantically we threw everything into the carts and locked it all in place. It was then we took our jumpseats and tried to catch our breath.

“Very good!” our instructors called out.

The FAA guy didn’t respond. He just sat there taking notes.

“Now grab your manuals and let’s go over what just happened,” an instructor said. And that’s what we did. We all grabbed our in-flight crew manuals and discussed what had happened and what we could have done better.

The above scenario took place in a controlled environment during my flight attendant recurrent training session. (Click the link to read what happened last year) It was also a re-enactment of what actually took place on a flight earlier this year. Each year flight attendants are required to go through hours of intensive hands on training, practicing everything from CPR to what we should do in case of a terrorist attack, and each year I leave the training facility feeling prepared for just about anything.

Whenever I write a post centering around customer service or flight safety, it never fails, there’s always someone quick to point out how rare it is that an in-flight emergency will occur. And that’s alway following by how bad customer service is today and how flight attendants should be replaced with vending machines – vending machines! I kid you not.

Besides having a very large woman pass out on top of me in the middle of the aisle, a man traveling from an international destination vomit all over my crew bag – and uniform blazer, a woman go unconscious not once, but twice, during a meal service, and wing flaps that wouldn’t go up one occasion, or down on another, resulting in the aircraft being met by dozens of emergency vehicles on the ground while I sat in my jumpseat ready to pop a slide and command an evacuation at any moment, not much has happened during my fourteen years of flying. The one and only time I had a serious medical emergency (a woman had a heart attack) two of my crew members happened to be qualified nurses and in business class traveled a group of doctors on their way to a medical convention. Like I mentioned above, I’ve been really lucky.

So what are the odds that an in-flight emergency will occur on one of your flights? I don’t know. What I do know is that I was surprised to meet several flight attendants at recurrent training this year who had, in fact, experienced several emergencies – each!

After fighting the fire, I found myself practicing CPR on the floor with a flight attendant I’d never met before. He was in charge of the AED, which meant he was the one delivering the electrical shock when advised. “Have you ever had to do this in real life?” I asked as I pulled off a pair of plastic gloves and placed a pocket mask in a box being passed around the room.

“Twice,” he said as he got to his feet and helped me up.

“Twice?” I repeated. “Are you serious?” I could tell by the look on his face it had greatly affected him.

The next class involved going through a planned emergency. A planned emergency happens when flight attendants are alerted in flight by the cockpit that an emergency landing will take place. Flight attendants will then go through a planned emergency check list step by step until all tasks have been completed. Remember the miraculous Hudson River landing? That was a planned emergency landing.

As we sat on the mock airplane waiting for the instructors to announce the names of the “working crew” I sighed. The stress was getting to me. “Thank god I’ve never had to do this in real life,” I mumbled to the guy sitting beside me.

“Oh I’ve had four planned emergencies and one unplanned emergency.”

I just looked at him. Then I said, “No offense, but I hope I never have to fly with you!”

“Why?” he asked, still smiling. “I’m lucky!” That’s when I realized he was lucky, very lucky indeed!
Then he added, “During one of the planned emergencies I worked with a flight attendant who had brought along his 8 year-old son. Can you imagine? What are the odds that the day you bring your child on a flight you’re working is the day an engine catches on fire and you have to make an emergency landing?”

Just then an instructor called my seatmate’s name to play the lead flight attendant during the planned emergency landing we were about to re-enact, along with eight other names. Mine wasn’t one of them, thankfully. Even so, I shook my head as I sat in my seat, just like a real life passenger, and thought about the so-called odds and what it all meant. I mean what were the odds that the one guy in the room most qualified to handle a planned emergency landing would be called out to role-play the flight attendant in charge? What were the odds that my CPR partner would have had to actually perform it in flight on two seperate occassions? What are the odds of anything, really? And in the end, do the odds even matter?

Are you a flight attendant who has experienced an in-flight emergency? Share your story here!