Early Lessons From EK521

ek521 lessons
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Emirates EK521 Lessons

Recently, Emirates Airlines, with the heretofore unblemished safety record, experienced a potentially horrific (the plane burst into flames soon after crashing) accident. Those onboard were able to exit without fatalities.

While it is way too early to speculate as to causes, it is appropriate to use this disaster as a learning opportunity.

Below is a summary of the observations about the events at Dubai International Airport (DBX).

Flight EK521 reportedly made an emergency landing in Dubai around 12.45pm local time. The Boeing 777, which was flying to the United Arab Emirates from Thiruvananthapuram, in the southern Indian state of Kerala, was pictured on its belly.

Flight EK521 had flown an uneventful four hours from India when it came into land at Dubai, and Air Traffic Control reportedly informed the captain the landing gear wasn’t down.

Transponder data from the Boeing 777-300 obtained by aviation website FlightRadar24.com show the descending plane came close to the ground at 12:37 p.m. local time before altitude readings and the vertical speed suddenly increased, indicating the start of a go-around.

Those data transmissions came around the same time an air traffic control radio recording has someone calling out the flight’s number and saying “returning to 4,000.”

The 777 caught fire after landing, but all 282 passengers and crew were able to escape uninjured. Of the 282 passengers on board, 226 were Indian citizens, 24 were UK citizens, six were US, four were Irish and two Australian. A total of 20 nationalities were represented on the passenger list. The reports indicate that 14 were taken to a hospital for treatment.

Tragically, a firefighter was killed in the successful effort to quell the blaze.

Jassim Eissa al-Baloushi was identified as the brave Dubai firefighter who sacrificed his life in response to this fire:

emirates ek521 lessons

Emirates’ Chairman and Chief Executive Shaikh Ahmad Bin Saeed Al Maktoum said “…This afternoon…Our flight EK521 from Thiruva-ananthapuram in India to Dubai had an incident at Dubai International. We do not have all the details yet. Thankfully, there were no fatalities among our passengers and crew.” He added “the aircraft’s inspections were up to date and it was ‘clear to land.’”

Whatever higher authority you recognize surely had some influence on this surprising effort, but a great deal of credit is due to years of improved certification standards for fire suppression and evacuation procedures. More directly, it should be recognized that the passengers exiting before the conflagration occurred is due to the excellent Emirates’ cabin and cockpit crews and their training. 

This review is well premised by the statement of Dubai Airport’s chief executive Paul Griffiths said there would be “lessons to be learnt.”

“We will have a very detailed look at the procedures that we operated during the course of the management of the incident and we will adopt the lessons learnt. We will share them with our stakeholders and to make sure that our response is better if we ever have the unfortunate situation to deal with something in the future,” he said. The investigation into the crash is expected to take three to five months, according the UAE’s federal aviation authority.


The passengers ignored the cabin crew instructions

emirates ek521 lessons

One safety commentator observed, “The Emirates crew did a good job in shouting to passengers to leave everything behind when the evacuation was initiated…It’s a miracle all of the passengers came out unharmed since a video of the evacuation shows several people grabbing their carry-on luggage from the overhead bins.”

Another person reviewed, based on smartphone footage, analyxzed the scene as follows:

“Over the loud speaker, a man’s voice calmly calls out: ‘Cabin crew, this is the captain: evacuate, evacuate.’

Light gray smoke fills the cabin as some grabbed personal belongings in the overhead bins.

‘Please don’t do that! Leave everything!’ another man shouts, presumably a member of the flight crew. ‘Leave the bag! Jump and slide!’

Another crew member runs past empty rows of seats, likely checking for anyone left behind. The camera shakes as a woman’s voice screams for passengers to jump down an inflatable emergency slide.”

It is unknown what the Emirates announcements and written materials include and not all airlines explicitly warn passengers to leave their belongings and to exit calmly and swiftly. It is evident that the EK crew did orally and repeatedly admonish their charges to not carry out their possessions.

For US carriers and those airlines operating to/from America, the FARs mandate this specific warning, but for flights unrelated to its jurisdiction. The agency does not have the power to insist compliance outside of its regulatory limits. In addition, it  has created a system that enables it to function as an international safety advisory board, but even with that “influence,” it does not have the absolute unilateral power to compel third country adherence.

It might be warranted for ICAO to make this one of its standards. To reinforce the importance TO THE PASSENGER, the regulators and/or industry might consider additional messaging; for example (perhaps a bit facetiously), something like this:

emirates ek521 lessons

Or maybe sending this safety message through Public Service Announcements could reach their target audience away from the plane (A4A could use its advertising budget better for this than its existing silly advertisement campaign). NHTSA, in cooperation with the Ad Council, tries to reinforce certain safety behaviors, like “no texting and driving,” “click it or ticket” and “friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” This type of advertising campaigns must be effective; for NHTSA has been sponsoring them for years and the level of appearances frequently on all media is high.

emirates ek521 lessons

FAA fire resistance and seat standards are shown to work in a real life situation

The amazingly safe exit from the B-777 may be attributed to (1) Emirates’ training and performance of the EK crew, (2) engineering of the Boeing 777 and (3) the FAA’s fire resistance and seat design. The omniscient so-called safety experts might dispute the claim that the third factor is adequate.

The FAA issued an advisory notice on emergency evacuation demonstrations, a set time limit for evacuations was established in 1965, when carriers seeking to add a new aircraft to their fleets must conduct full-scale evacuation run-throughs, which limited evacuation to two minutes and used only half the available exits. In 1967, airplane manufacturers were required to conduct demonstrations of full evacuation in less than 90 seconds. The FAA updated its regulatory standards by adding rules for tests with passenger groups with age and gender relevant to the current populations. The contingencies were expanded to include evacuations with the off-wing exits blocked.

To reduce the number of accidents during demonstrations, computer simulations have been made an option in certain situations.

Here are factors which should reinforce the existing evacuation rules:

  • EK521 had passengers of multiple ages and languages.
  • Its passengers failed to follow the no carriage of carry-on’s off the plane.
  • Thick, black smoke quickly filled the cabin.
  • There was no call before landing by the cockpit crew for emergency vehicles to meet the flight.
  • The control tower called for help as soon as the crash occurred.
  • Everyone on board exited the fuselage within the 90 seconds.
  • The plane literally exploded within minutes of the aircraft’s arresting on the runway.

emirates ek521 lessons

This was not only a realistic test, but the accident proved that FAA’s safety criteria worked under an extreme environment.


More to come

The investigation will take longer which is typical of these inquiries into the probable causes. It is entirely improper to react now to suspicions, but these two lessons appear to be solid.


ARTICLE: Emirates B777 crash lands in Dubai
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2 Comments on "Early Lessons From EK521"

  1. So when to JDA think it is time to speculate? LOL!! Seriously though, how likely is an ad campaign to change behaviors?

    • NHTSA spends millions for PSAs about buckling seat belts. The pre-flight announcements are not terribly effective— anything that MIGHT help to save lives is worth a shot.

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