Japan Airlines jet bursts into flames after collision with earthquake

How safety rules 'written in blood' saved lives in Tokyo plane crash – CNN


When you look at the footage of the Japan Airlines collision at Tokyo's Haneda Airport, it seems like a miracle that anyone escaped unhurt.

But while tragically five of six crew members of the Japanese Coast Guard aircraft Dash 8 that was hit while landing on Tuesday died, all 379 passengers and crew on board the Airbus A350 survived the accident.

While investigations into the incident in which the JAL plane exploded in a fireball are ongoing, experts believe the successful evacuation was due to a combination of modern safety standards and Japan Airlines' strict safety culture.

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

“It is such a severe impact that any aircraft has to withstand. But given what I know about this airline and how much effort they have put into safety and crew training, the fact that they have done such a good job shouldn’t be a huge surprise.”

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

On August 12, 1985, JAL Flight 123 from Tokyo to Osaka crashed, killing 520 of the 524 passengers on board, after Boeing technicians – not the airline – incorrectly repaired the tail following an earlier incident.

To date, it remains the deadliest single aircraft accident in aviation history.

“The impact has clearly been profound for the airline,” says Braithwaite. “In a culture like Japan, they took on this responsibility as a group and wanted to make sure something like this never happened again.

“So when something goes wrong, they look at it in terms of how they can learn from it. Everything is an opportunity for improvement.”

In 2005, realizing that many employees were joining the company with no memory of the accident 20 years earlier, JAL opened a room at its headquarters to display parts of the wreckage as well as stories from the crew and passengers.

“There was a feeling that there were people who joined our company who didn't know what it was like to do something wrong. Everyone needs to understand how much effort goes into security,” says Braithwaite.

Nearly four decades later, the crash still has a profound impact on the company's mentality, he says.

“They have a very strict culture around standard operating procedures and doing all work properly. That’s one of the reasons I think the crew did such a good job on this case,” he says.

Although it is not clear who was responsible for Tuesday's crash, Braithwaite says the successful evacuation is “absolutely” 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 consistently named among the safest airlines in the world in an annual list by the website Airlineratings.com.

Editor-in-Chief Geoffrey Thomas said: “Japan Airlines has enjoyed an excellent safety record since 1985. However, this accident was not the airline's fault but was due to faulty repairs by Boeing.

“It receives the top rating on our website as a seven-star airline and has passed all major safety checks. The Japanese Aviation Safety Agency also performs better than the global average in compliance with the eight regulatory criteria.”

Richard A. Brooks/AFP/Getty Images

Japan Airlines, like many modern airlines, has an impeccable safety culture.

Runway incursions, as classified, are “rare but can be catastrophic,” Braithwaite says.

As different airlines and ground operators move their vehicles, airports become “complicated real estate that we have to work really hard to protect.”

Obviously, it is still too early to know what happened in Tokyo and how both planes ended up on the runway at the same time.

But the message from the aviation industry is the same: it appears to have been the crew's quick response that saved hundreds of lives. Within seconds of the plane coming to a stop, the rescue parachutes were inflated and the passengers on board were quickly ushered away, even as the cabin filled with smoke.

“I am extremely impressed by the pilots, crew and passengers in what appears to be a textbook evacuation in the most extreme conditions,” said a pilot from a major European airline who wished to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak for their airline.

We are at a good point in aviation, they added: “The robustness of modern aircraft and the training of pilots to deal with extraordinary situations have evolved over decades to such an extent that we are experiencing the safest time in aviation since its inception experience.”

“As aircraft have become larger, procedures have been refined so that all passengers can be evacuated in 90 seconds. Flight attendants on some airlines can now also initiate an evacuation when there is clearly a disaster, saving crucial seconds by not having to wait for the captain to initiate the evacuation.”

As JAL employees know all too well, modern aviation's safety record, says the pilot, “is written in the blood of others who haven't had it so good.”

Accidents become lessons that are “passed across the industry so that all employees can do their jobs better.”

They cite an Aeroflot accident in 2019 as a similar incident to Tuesday, in which a plane burst into flames while landing in Moscow and 41 of 73 passengers died.

And in 1980, Saudia Flight 163, in which all 301 passengers on board died from smoke inhalation after the plane made a successful emergency landing in Riyadh but the pilots failed to order an evacuation, provided the impetus for giving cabin crew authority authorize to take out passengers.

Check out this interactive content on CNN.com

Another accident that had a significant impact on safety was the 1985 British Airtours disaster at Manchester Airport in the United Kingdom.

The plane suffered a false start and caught fire. While it came to a standstill on the runway and the fire department arrived quickly, 55 people died – mostly from smoke inhalation.

“This resulted in many recommendations that influenced many functions of modern aircraft,” says Braithwaite.

“The fact that there is enough space around the exits. Lights along the floor. The cabin crew checks whether the person sitting at the overwing exit can open it. Much clearer exit signs. The materials we use to make the cabins. A major feature of the Manchester fire was the rapid development of smoke.

“All of these things contribute to a successful evacuation.”

He cites his former colleague at Cranfield, Professor Helen Muir, as someone who changed the safety landscape after this accident. She was known for conducting incentivized tests 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 is the influence of cabin crew that gets people to evacuate a plane, and quickly.”

Steven Erhlich, chairman of PilotsTogether – a charity set up to support crews during the pandemic – agrees.

“It is still too early to comment on the details of the incident, but it is clear that the team did an exemplary job,” he said.

“The safety training that the airlines – in this case JAL – continually provided to crews paid off and enabled an evacuation within 90 seconds. The takeaway from my perspective is that passengers need to pay attention to the safety briefings and remember that the crews are not highly touted catering staff, but rather well-trained safety experts.”

Minimum international safety standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO, part of the UN) require cabin crew to conduct emergency evacuations annually. Aircraft manufacturers must also demonstrate that any new aircraft can be fully evacuated in 90 seconds.

In addition, individual airlines may have additional requirements – British Airways has stricter rules on materials used in the cabin, says Braithwaite after the Manchester crash. The pilot who spoke to CNN conducts evacuation drills in his airline's simulator every six months. They also have to practice in a simulator filled with synthetic smoke.

“This makes a difference to the education of the previous generation,” they say. “It takes the shock factor out of the real scenario. It “locks up the chimpanzee” – we get rational rather than instinctive thoughts and actions, which is far safer.”

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

“This is something unusual for us as passengers, but it is absolutely strict,” he says.

“When we come ashore, they generally sit there and think, 'That's what I'm going to do.' They look outside the plane. You know exactly where the handle is. It is this “routinization” of behavior that has just happened here [in Tokyo].

“It's a shocking surprise for the rest of us, but it's the training that keeps you going.” And taking that so seriously is an important part.”

Kentaro Takahashi/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Everyone on board flight JAL516 survived.

In fact, one of the lessons we passengers should learn from this incident, experts say, is that we should pay more attention.

Erlich cites the fact that JAL516's passengers were evacuated without taking all of their carry-on luggage with them – a horrific practice we've seen in videos of recent evacuations.

Mika Yamake, whose husband was on board, previously told CNN: “He just came out with his cell phone. He had to leave everything else behind.”

A pilot for a major European airline, who wished to remain anonymous, told CNN that saving so many lives may have a cultural aspect.

“There are definitely challenges across airlines and cultures where some people prioritize their carry-on luggage or belongings over their safety and that of their fellow passengers,” they said.

“Leaving everything behind and getting out should be your only priority. When that happens, everyone has the best chance of survival.”

Erlich agrees: “Any delay in the evacuation could have had catastrophic consequences just for the sake of the laptop or the carry-on bag.” This incident could have been far worse if the passengers had not heeded warnings to leave their belongings behind. “

Braithwaite says it's time we all focused.

“I sat on a plane a few weeks ago next to someone who didn't listen when the safety briefing came because he was convinced it was the right thing to do if something went wrong,” he says.

“Today, almost 400 people in Japan proved that this is not the case.

“It’s a testament to how much we’ve done to show that accidents are survivable.”