Why Do Passengers Grab Baggage Before Evacuating an Airplane?

“The pre-flight briefing should drop the seat belt how-to and include a clear explanation of liability coverage in the case of an accident. Ok, maybe that sounds dull — but I suspect many people grab belongings because they relate it to ‘lost luggage’ in typical ops, where getting remuneration is exceedingly difficult. ‘Leave your stuff behind; we’ll replace it all. We can’t replace your life.’”

Why Do Passengers Grab Baggage Before Evacuating an Airplane?

This comment written by Ed I — who is a reader of The Gate — was in response to this article pertaining to 5 reasons never to evacuate an airplane with your belongings

..but although leaving belongings aboard an airplane during an evacuation may seem like simple common sense, why do passengers grab their belongings anyway?

Several articles which I have read indicate that passengers may simply be used to retrieving their belongings when a plane lands — which seems to be common, no matter from what part of the world in which you are based — and people are automatically concerned about getting their luggage without thinking about the consequences.

“There are lots of psychologists with opinions but no controlled studies of the phenomenon. You can’t recreate it in a lab setting because you can’t put people in a life-or-death situation,” according to this article written by Richard Westcott for BBC News which quotes Ashley Nunes, who is an aviation expert. “Studies show that the likelihood of a cabin being consumed by fire increases significantly after 90 seconds, but those evacuation tests don’t account for people trying to take their luggage with them.”

Members of the flight crew train rigorously for weeks at a time to prepare for what no one hopes is an eventual occurrence; and that training includes instructing harried passengers — some of who may be in shock.

“The initial advice was to sit tight, which is good,” according to this article written by Mark Tran of The Guardian, which quotes James Thompson, who is a fellow of the British Psychological Society. “But then it gets confusing because you’re told to get the hell out. So the initial message is to freeze and the next is to flee. However, once you are told to flee, you should just go and not bother with the £100 you are leaving behind.”

Could passengers also be too worried about recouping the value of their belongings from the airlines, as inferred by Ed I?

Passengers seem to rarely listen to the safety announcements from either members of the flight crew or from a safety video prior to departure of the flight; and amongst the reasons could be complacency, boredom, disinterest — or all of those reasons combined. Airlines have attempted to ensure that their safety videos are more interesting and entertaining — but if they even watch the video, are passengers remembering what an actor did versus the actual message which the safety video is required to impart? Is the safety message coming across effectively — or have the safety videos failed in their primary purpose in general?

Perhaps the perceived adversarial relationship between airlines and their customers may have a significant psychological role associated with this phenomenon, as passengers may very well automatically assume that airlines seem to do everything they can to “enhance” the overall experience to the point of it being as miserable, stressful and frustrating as possible in terms of cost, comfort and inconvenience. Why should they listen to — or trust — the words from an entity which does not seem to care about them, anyway?!?

“The problem has vexed regulators because it involves human behavior, which is notoriously hard to fix. Among the solutions that have been suggested: beefed-up preflight instructions, additional training for the flight crew and overhead bins that can be automatically locked in an emergency”, according to this article written By Alan Levin and Mary Schlangenstein for Bloomberg. “A safety study the NTSB compiled in 2000 found that 36 flight attendants interviewed after evacuations reported that passengers carrying bags were the biggest impediment. Almost half of passengers involved in evacuations who had carry-on bags, 208 out of 419 interviewed, admitted to trying to take items with them, the study said.”

Even the Federal Aviation Administration of the United States has tried to alleviate this significant problem — but with little success: “If an emergency evacuation is necessary, leave your carry-on items on the plane. Retrieving personal items may impede the safe evacuation of passengers.”


I have read countless times about how some people tend to think irrationally during an actual emergency. Chastising people for doing what they are not supposed to do is easy when one is not involved and viewing a situation from afar…

…but what would we really do — and how would we really act — if we were involved in an actual evacuation of an airplane or some other critical emergency?

“Thompson suggested that airlines should have an emergency door in the airport waiting lounge for passengers to practise opening in the waiting lounge if they wanted to have really effective safety warnings.” That does seem like a good idea which would possibly better prepare passengers in the unlikely event of an actual emergency…

…but complacency amongst passengers is understandable, as people rarely ever think about the potential dangers of flying inside of a metal tube which is zooming across the skies at 550 miles per hour — primarily because commercial aviation is thankfully safer than ever, despite the recent airplane crashes in Russia and Iran from which no survivors emerged.

Keep in mind that burning up precious time for your safety and ensuring that your belongings are also safe is purely selfish and thoughtless, as that is time spent which could literally save lives — including yours.

Remember that your belongings can always be replaced; but your life cannot be replaced. Is retrieving that portable electronic device really worth sacrificing the life of someone?

I keep important items in my front pants pockets at all times — such as a mobile telephone, credit cards, passport and cash to name a few items which will not impede upon evacuating from an airplane in any way whatsoever. I do not keep anything in my back pocket, as that is one of the parts which will be in contact with the evacuation slide and could potentially impede upon my egress from the airplane down to the ground.

Fortunately, emergencies involving airplanes are extremely rare in recent years — but employees of airlines who are involved in safety all agree that even one fatality resulting from an airplane emergency is one death too many.

Photograph ©2013 by Brian Cohen.

6 thoughts on “Why Do Passengers Grab Baggage Before Evacuating an Airplane?”

  1. Mom of 4 says:

    As a woman, I don’t have the luxury of putting my most important documents, phone, etc, in my front pocket. If I leave my purse on the plane, how do I prove who I am? Fortunately, this has never happened to me, but you can be sure that if it ever did, I will certainly be grabbing my purse.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      I will bet that you do not keep your purse in the overhead baggage compartment, Mom of 4. Therefore, taking your purse with you would take virtually no time at all in an emergency and should not impede egress from the aircraft — even though taking your purse would not be recommended; and likely highly discouraged by members of the flight crew and safety experts…

      …but if you do take your purse, you may want to ensure that its straps are not loose to mitigate the chance that they will snag onto something; and to have both hands available in case you need them.

      I have used emergency slides more than once. You will need to keep your arms outstretched as you slide down to the ground. Please see the photograph at the top of this article for reference.

      1. mom of 4 says:

        I use a small cross body bag when I travel. Hands free (and I don’t have to worry about pick pockets). And it is not in the overhead. You have the luxury of having your wallet in your front pants pocket. I don’t.

  2. BD67 says:

    let’s see how understanding you’d be “mom” if the plane was on fire and 15 people ahead of you were grabbing their “important documents” while your four children are burning to death.

  3. Christian says:

    As long as the passengers who want to exit with baggage are willing to let the passengers without baggage to exit first, I’m perfectly agreeable with the situation. If there’s an emergency exodus and people want to stop to gather belongings, I will do what’s needed to allow myself, my family, and other normal passengers to exit without being delayed. If you want to take your stuff, have a seat and wait for the people who want to leave in a hurry.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      I could not have said it better myself, Christian.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *