Covid-19 or aircraft evacuation, when does fear set in?

Even under high-risk situations, passengers have been observed to take their time to collect their personal belongings before they exit the aircraft

Covid-19 or aircraft evacuation, when does fear set in?
Evacuation from US Airways Flight 1549 that had to land in the Hudson river. Image courtesy: Wikipedia

A dreaded pandemic or a passenger evacuation from an aircraft. When does fear set in? The world did not take precautions when Covid-19 was spreading in China. What were they waiting for?

Passenger evacuation after an incident is the last resort where the crew decides the safest option in the interest of minimising harm to the passengers and the crew is to leave the aircraft as soon possible before a ravaging fire or any other eventuality engulfs the aircraft. 

Even under these high-risk situations, passengers have been observed to take their time to collect their personal belongings from the overhead stowage before they exit the aircraft. There is no sense of urgency in their actions or behaviour. The door they exit from is also based on their choice rather than the closest one that can help them egress and run to a safer place, away from the aircraft.

The 90-second rule for demonstrating the evacuation of an aircraft is carried out by actors who have been briefed on the exercise and the objectives. They are highly motivated and perform their tasks with precision. Real passengers will not behave in the same manner.

What is fear?

Everyone has experienced the feeling of fear in their lifetime. How would you define fear? The typical definition is 'an unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain, or harm or to be afraid of (someone or something) as likely to be dangerous, painful, or harmful'.

The question that arises is, when does the emotion of fear set in? In day-to-day life we see people taking unnecessary risks that you would call fearless acts of bravery or downright foolishness, depending on the context. We see people crossing busy traffic intersections without the fear of risking an accident with a fast-moving vehicle. Do these people not experience fear? Canadian psychiatrist JT MacCurdy has written about fear in his book The Structure of Morale.

Experience the fear

The term 'fear' covers many different kinds of subjective experience and a range of efficiency in action extending from zero to the maximum of which the individual is capable. The psychologist is interested in all of these and in the ways in which they are interrelated but the soldier or the air-raid warden is not. Only one form of fear is important for him -- the terror that paralyses or leads to panic.

Is it normal to fear?

Fear is the natural, and therefore, a reasonable response to danger. But is it? Let us consider some common examples. If the formula is correct, fear ought to be proportionate to the knowledge of the danger, to a realisation of the risks involved. Who knows so well as nurses and doctors the dangers from infections? But how many of them are afraid of patients with contagious diseases? Is the policeman or the private citizen the more frightened of burglars? Is the fireman or the householder more frightened of fire? These are all real dangers. But there are also what are technically called phobias: fears of agencies that are merely potentially, not actually, dangerous.

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Is there a man or woman who is not afraid of either high places, open spaces, enclosed places, fire, drowning or lightning stroke, of cancer, tuberculosis, or some other disease of which he exhibits no symptoms, or of animals large or small, with no legs or many legs, or loud noises or the sight of blood? So everyone is a coward. But each of us admires the courage of the others who are indifferent to the terrors that assail us. So we must all be courageous.

Fear and danger

Fear is always associated with some sign or thought of danger. It is not the suffering which injury causes but an anticipation of it. It is kind of crying before one is hurt. But we have seen that, emotionally, we behave both as if we were certain to be hurt and that we never could be. Do animals have similar anticipatory reactions? Do they learn to respond to signals or come to neglect them? They do and, indeed, there is no aspect of animal mentality that has been more thoroughly explored. This learning and unlearning is what is called the ‘conditioned reflex’ or, better, the ‘conditioned reaction’. It was first reported by the great English physiologist Charles Scott Sherrington, but a thoroughgoing exploration of the field was begun by the Russian Ivan Pavlov and his colleagues.

Thought of ineffective action

It has been stated that we all know fear in the sense of recognising it when experienced. But that does not mean that we, therefore, scrutinise the experience so as to discover what the stages are in its development, the conditions under which it appears, or, equally important, what is present, or what happens when, in a situation of danger, we feel no fear nor exhibit its symptoms to others. We tend naively to think that we are frightened when danger threatens, but then, in practice, call situations dangerous only when we have been frightened.

Crossing a road

A simple example will illustrate how illogical this is. You are crossing a street and hear the horn of a motor car. You look up, see the car bearing down on you, quicken your pace and reach the footpath in safety. There was no fear, there may not even have been a break in your talk with a companion. Yet you escaped being mangled or killed. If the imminent possibility of such a fate does not constitute a danger, what does? Let us consider in contrast another and, fortunately, rarer occurrence.

You are again crossing the roadway, the horn blows, again you look up and quicken your pace. But this time you step on a patch of grease and come down sprawling right in front of the car; with a desperate scramble or roll you reach safety, or the driver, with adroitness, manages to swerve past you. You pick yourself up relieved at finding yourself only dirty. Soon you find yourself thinking about the escape and this thought is accompanied by fear. For some days you may be timorous in traffic, but that soon wears off when you return to your normal implicit denial of the danger lurking on roadways.

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What are the differences between these two kinds of experience? One, you will say, was a narrow escape while the other was not. But what does 'narrowness’ mean? It cannot be just a physical distance, because the terrifying car may not have passed so close to you as did the one which produced no emotional shock. The difference lies, rather, in the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the action taken. In the first case, there was, quite unreflectively, a movement of avoidance and no thought of its failure ever appeared. In the second case, the same unreflective movement was attempted but miscarried. In the resultant emergency, unpractised movements were made and as soon as there was any reflection on the escape the symptoms of fear appeared.

So, for the production of fear, there must not merely be a danger but ineffective action to meet it followed by a rehearsal of the events in memory. An inaccurate memory for it includes an element not really experienced, namely the imagination of an injury that never occurred. The same formula applies to fears that are conjured up in fantasy. There is always the thought of ineffective action. The thought of danger countered with effective action is the formula for the pleasant fantasy of adventure. Thus it would seem that fear results from thoughts of ineffective measures to meet danger.

Passenger evacuation mindFly analysis

In the event of a passenger evacuation, studies have recorded that passengers leave the aircraft in an orderly manner, even helping other passengers who would require any help. This behaviour changes to pushing and shoving to leave the aircraft the moment the passengers see an immediate danger like fire or dense smoke. This could be due to the fact that their intended plan has failed to achieve the desired result and the threat is grave enough to risk their lives. This is when fear sets in and the action of fight or flight is triggered.

It is important that the passengers are briefed on the consequences of not complying with the instructions so that the knowledge of what could happen triggers a reaction which sets in fear. Humans need a certain degree of arousal to work at an optimum performance level and fear could raise their arousal levels physiologically and psychologically. An evacuation in 90 seconds can be achieved as per design.

Captain Amit Singh is a training and safety expert with over 30 years of experience in the commercial air transport industry. He has been associated with two startup low-cost carriers and has hands-on experience with their needs and challenges. He has been a part of the senior management at IndiGo and Air Asia India. Captain Singh has been speaking at international fora on training and safety. He is also the author of mindFly the Human Factors blog.

(This article first appeared in