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O’Hare jet scare spurs talk of fines for fliers lugging bags during evacuations

Passengers evacuate American Airlines flight 383 after the plane caught fire upon takeoff Oct. 28, 2016 at O'Hare Airport.

Passengers evacuate American Airlines flight 383 after the plane caught fire upon takeoff Oct. 28, 2016, at O'Hare Airport. | Youtube

After a number of passengers refused to leave their carry-on bags behind amid a chaotic evacuation of a burning American Airlines jetliner at O’Hare Airport in 2016, a flight attendant offered a federal investigator an idea for dealing with such potentially dangerous intransigence: “Maybe issue fines for passengers who take luggage.”

That’s worth exploring, says Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, which recently finished its investigation into the fiery incident in which the Boeing 767-300 safely screeched to a halt on an O’Hare runway after an engine blew during takeoff.

“I have thought about that,” Sumwalt told the Chicago Sun-Times. “People might be less inclined to worry about all their Gucci luggage.”

The Oct. 28, 2016, O’Hare incident was cited by the NTSB as one of four aviation emergencies in the United States in the past several years in which an evacuation was hampered by travelers grabbing carry-on luggage.

In a separate incident, in January 2016, there was a baggage mutiny aboard a United Airlines jetliner that had slid from an O’Hare runway, records obtained by the Sun-Times show. With the plane’s nose wheel on the grass, travelers had to disembark on the airfield and were told by the captain and flight attendants to leave luggage, but “several passengers” argued, and “several did not listen,” records show.

In the American Airlines engine fire, the NTSB blamed the near-catastrophe on an engine problem — microscopic “fatigue” cracks in a turbine disk caused it to break apart at incredible velocity, piercing a fuel line and tank and igniting one side of the aircraft.

The pilots already were rolling to depart for Miami at roughly 150 miles an hour but made a split-second decision to hit the brakes, which probably saved the lives of the 170 people on board because, if the plane had gotten into the air, it might not have been able to get back on the ground safely.

The evacuation was troublesome in part because the flight attendants had problems using in-plane phones to reach and get direction from the pilots, who didn’t initially realize the scope of the problem.

There was panic on board, with flames visible to many passengers and smoke pouring in.

And yet, some passengers insisted on bringing carry-on bags and retrieving them from overhead compartments, according to federal records showing post-incident interviews with flight attendants.

One of those flight attendants relayed a story about a passenger “running up the right aisle with a bag over his head,” and, when a crew member tried “to get it away from him,” he yelled, “I’m taking it with me.”

Another flight attendant saw a woman with a large bag who was “instructed . . . to leave the bag and evacuate the airplane.

“The woman did not listen,” so the flight attendant “tried to take the bag away,” records show. After “a short struggle,” the crew member “decided the woman was causing a delay in the evacuation and instructed her to exit the airplane with the bag.”

The NTSB issued safety recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration, urging it to, among other things, conduct research to “measure and evaluate the effects of carry-on baggage on passenger deplaning times and safety during an emergency evacuation” and “identify effective countermeasures to reduce any determined risks, and implement the countermeasures.”

National Transportation Safety Board chairman Robert Sumwalt. The State via AP

Sumwalt said, “I think the best people to determine” whether fines ultimately should be implemented are with the FAA, which regulates airports, airspace and airlines.

Industry reaction to the idea of new fines was lukewarm, and the FAA wouldn’t comment on the issue, with a spokesman saying only, “We will review and consider the NTSB’s recommendations and findings.”

In the past, the FAA has stressed the importance of leaving bags and getting to safety. In a 2016 informational video aimed at air travelers, then-FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said that “in the unlikely event that you need to evacuate, please, leave your bags and personal items behind. Your luggage is not worth your life. Opening an overhead compartment will delay evacuation and put the lives of everyone around you at risk.”

Among other ideas discussed in the aviation industry for speeding up evacuations: Having overhead bins automatically lock in emergencies — something that the union representing 50,000 flight attendants from 20 airlines said could bring “unintended safety consequences including interfering with access to emergency equipment stored in overhead bins.”

The union — the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA — said implementing new fines was less important than enforcing and publicizing existing laws.

Sara Nelson: “Apparently the threat of death by incineration fueled by thousands of gallons of jet fuel isn’t enough of a deterrent to stop passengers from taking time to grab carry-on bags during an emergency evacuation.” | Association of Flight Attendants

“Apparently the threat of death by incineration fueled by thousands of gallons of jet fuel isn’t enough of a deterrent to stop passengers from taking time to grab carry-on bags during an emergency evacuation,” said the group’s president, Sara Nelson. “The FAA should use existing laws to crack down on passengers endangering themselves and countless others as they put computers, cosmetics and clothing ahead of human life.”

Nelson noted that the FAA already can pursue criminal charges and fines up to $250,000 — plus civil fines of as much as $25,000 – “for interfering with the flight attendants’ ability to perform their duties, depending on the severity of the interference.”

Aviation experts said they’re unaware of anyone ever being punished by the FAA for refusing to leave behind a carry-on bag during an evacuation.

“Our union is calling for enforcement of this law as it relates to passengers grabbing carry-on bags during an emergency evacuation,” Nelson said. “It’s just that serious. And something has got to make these people listen to crew instructions.”

An FAA official said the agency has sought civil penalties against more than 150 passengers in the past five years for interfering with a flight crew, but it’s unclear whether any of those incidents involved baggage.