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How safety rules ‘written in blood’ saved lives in Tokyo plane crash

Japan Airlines jet bursts into flames after collision with earthquake relief plane at Tokyo Haneda airport

Watching the footage of the Japan Airlines collision at Tokyo’s Haneda airport, it seems miraculous that anyone has emerged unscathed.

Yet while, tragically, five of six crew on the Japan Coast Guard Dash 8 plane it struck during landing on Tuesday have died, all 379 passengers and crew onboard the Airbus A350 have survived the accident.

While investigations into what happened in the incident, which saw the JAL plane erupt in a fireball, are ongoing, experts say the successful evacuation is down to a combination of modern safety standards and Japan Airlines’ own rigorous safety culture.

“From what I saw on the footage, I was surprised and relieved that everyone got out,” says Graham Braithwaite, professor of safety and accident investigation at the UK’s Cranfield University.

“It’s such a severe impact for any aircraft to have to withstand. But knowing what I know about that airline, and how much effort they put into safety and into crew training, the fact that they did do such a good job shouldn’t be such a surprise.”

In fact, it was a catastrophic accident nearly 40 years ago that helped turned Japan AIrlines into such a safe airline, he says.

On August 12, 1985, JAL flight 123 from Tokyo to Osaka crashed, killing 520 out of the 524 onboard, after a faulty repair of the tail by Boeing technicians – not the airline’s – following an earlier incident.

To this day, it is the deadliest single-aircraft accident in aviation history.

“Clearly the effect was profound on the airline,” says Braithwaite. “In a culture like Japan’s, they took that responsibility as a group and wanted to make sure nothing like that ever happened again.

“So when things go wrong, they see it in terms of how they can learn. Everything is an opportunity to improve.”

In 2005, realizing that many employees were joining the company without a memory of that accident 20 years earlier, JAL opened a space in their corporate HQ displaying parts of the wreckage, as well as stories of the crew and passengers.

“The feeling was, there are people who’ve joined our business who don’t know what it’s like to go wrong. Everyone has to understand how much effort goes into safety,” says Braithwaite.

Nearly four decades on, the crash still has a profound effect on the company mentality, he says.

“They have a very strict culture around standard operating procedures and doing everything properly. That’s one of the reasons in this case I think the crew seems to have performed so well,” he says.

While it’s not clear who was to blame for Tuesday’s crash, Braithwaite says the successful evacuation is “absolutely” a positive for Japan Airlines.

“If you want to see a reason why you should fly with them, I think this is it,” he says.

JAL is regularly named among the world’s safest airlines in an annual listing by website Airlineratings.com.

Editor in chief Geoffrey Thomas says: “Japan Airlines has enjoyed an excellent safety (record) since 1985. However that accident was not the airline’s fault and was due to defective repair performed by Boeing.

“It is top rated as a seven-star airline by our website and has passed all the major safety audits. Also Japan’s airline safety regulator performs better on the eight oversight criteria than the world average for compliance.”

‘A textbook evacuation’

Japan Airlines, like many modern carriers, has an impeccable safety culture.Richard A. Brooks/AFP/Getty Images

Runway incursions, as this is classed, are “rare but can be catastrophic,” says Braithwaite.

With different airlines and ground operators all moving vehicles around, airports become “complicated real estate that we have to work really hard to protect.”

Obviously it’s too soon to know what happened in Tokyo, and how both aircraft came to be on the runway at the same time.

Yet the message from the aviation industry is the same: it appears to have been the fast reactions of the crew that saved hundreds of lives. Within seconds of the plane coming to a standstill, escape chutes were inflated and those on board were quickly ushered off, even as the cabin filled with smoke.

“I’m exceptionally impressed with the pilots, crew, and passengers for what seems to have been a textbook evacuation in the most extreme of conditions,” said one pilot for a major European airline who wished to remain anonymous as they are not authorized to speak for their airline.

We’re at a good point in aviation, they added: “The robust nature of modern aircraft and the training of pilots to handle abnormal situations has developed over decades to a point where we have the safest period in aviation since its beginning.

“Procedures have been refined as aircraft have got bigger, so all passengers can be evacuated in 90 seconds. Flight attendants on some airlines can also now initiate an evacuation if it’s clearly catastrophic, saving vital seconds by not waiting for the captain to initiate it.”

Safety rules ‘written in blood’

As JAL employees know all too well, modern aviation’s safety records are, says the pilot, “written in the blood of others who haven’t been so fortunate.”

Accidents become lessons, which are “shared across the industry so crew can all be better at their jobs.”

They cite an Aeroflot accident in 2019, which also saw a plane burst into flames on landing in Moscow, killing 41 out of 73 onboard, as a similar incident to Tuesday’s, which has been learned from.

And in 1980, Saudia flight 163 – in which all 301 onboard died from smoke inhalation after the plane made a successful emergency landing in Riyadh but the pilots failed to order an evacuation – was the impetus to give cabin crew authority to get passengers out, they say.

Another accident that had major effects on safety going forward was the 1985 British Airtours disaster at Manchester Airport in the UK.

The aircraft suffered an abortive takeoff, catching fire. While it came to a halt on the runway, and firefighters arrived quickly, 55 people died – mainly from smoke inhalation.

“Lots of recommendations came from that that influenced many of the features on modern aircraft,” says Braithwaite.

“The fact that there’s a decent amount of space around the exits. Lights along the floor. The cabin crew assessing whether the person sat at the overwing exit is able to open it. Much clearer exit signs. The materials we make the cabins from. A big feature from that Manchester fire was that it quickly gave off fumes.

“All these things contribute to a successful evacuation.”

He cites his former colleague at Cranfield, Professor Helen Muir, as someone who changed the safety landscape following that accident. She was known for doing “incentivized” trials where participants were paid more the sooner they got off the plane. Their behavior was then monitored and passed on to aircraft manufacturers and airlines.

Today, he says, we know that it’s “the influence of cabin crew that get people to evacuate an aircraft, and do so rapidly.”

Steven Erhlich, chair of PilotsTogether – a charity set up in the pandemic to support crew – agrees.

“It’s too soon to comment on the specifics of the incident, but what’s clear is that the crew performed in an exemplary fashion,” he says.

“The safety training that airlines – in this case JAL – put the crews through on a continuous basis paid off allowing for evacuation within 90 seconds. The takeaway from my point of view is that passengers need to pay attention to the safety briefings and remember that the crews are not glorified food service staff but are well-trained safety professionals.”

International minimum safety standards laid out by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO, part of the UN) mandate cabin crew practice emergency evacuations annually. Aircraft manufacturers must also prove that any new airplane can be fully evacuated in 90 seconds.

On top of that, individual airlines can have extra requirements – British Airways has more stringent rules on materials used in the cabin, says Braithwaite, following that Manchester crash. The pilot who spoke with CNN carries out six-monthly evacuation practices in their airline’s simulator. They also have to practice in a simulator filled with synthetic smoke.

“That makes a difference from the previous generation’s training,” they say. “It takes away the shock factor of the real scenario. It ‘cages the chimp’ – we get rational thoughts and actions instead of instinctive ones, it’s far safer.”

Braithwaite says that the routine aspect of training ingrains the procedures in crew’s minds.

“That’s the unseen bit for us as passengers, but it’s absolutely rigorous,” he says.

“As we’re coming into land, they’re generally sitting there, thinking through, ‘This is what I’ll do.’ They’re looking outside the aircraft. They know exactly where the handle is. It’s that ‘routinization’ of behavior that just happened here [in Tokyo].

‘It’s a shocking surprise for the rest of us, but it’s the training that carries through. And taking that so seriously is an important part.”

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