The day after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan, American Airlines pilot Alex Simione had a small problem with his flight to Asia.
Suddenly his cabin crew started panicking. No one seemed to know how to put on airplane oxygen masks.
“I worked out what was happening by following the advice of an evacuation manual, which says to put your head down on the tray table and breathe into a bag of air,” said Simione.
That short tip got the pilot off the ground. The Boeing 777 landed safely in Japan on Sunday.
For tens of thousands of airline workers around the world, what happened in Japan was a shocking reminder of how easily things can go wrong.
“I wasn’t too worried,” said Simione, “because we had a full crew and there were always two pilots in each cockpits, so we would be there if something happened, just in case.”
Paul Dempsey, the United Airlines operations chief at Newark International Airport, said over the years he’s seen airplanes take off with service crews taking charge.
“A lot of these guys, as a matter of routine, they know how to do an emergency evacuation,” said Dempsey. “They will call out, take off, land, leave the aircraft, just to make sure they can perform.”
And in recent years, Dempsey says airlines have done more to train crews.
“There’s not one crew member who’s asleep in an airplane, there’s not one breath that’s even been made,” said Dempsey. “So we’re all trained well to be able to react to an emergency situation.”
The life-or-death example of how easy it is to escape from airplanes should be a constant reminder. But even when it comes to basic training, many airlines allow their employees to defer questions about the basics until the arrival of the first passenger.
“I hate that,” said Mr. Simione. “When you’re aboard, you need to know your way around because they need to know their way around.”
That’s why Simione and his crew had good plans and were ready to improvise.
“The crew didn’t panic, they did what they were supposed to do,” said Simione. “I think we did a great job, and I’m sure they would say the same.”
Experts say airline pilots should be able to react to an emergency situation in a matter of minutes.
But in many cases, many airline pilots aren’t trained that well. The Federal Aviation Administration has said it will rely on the airlines to hire more pilots to fix the problem. But many believe if the FAA does nothing for years, there will be no problem.
David Corrado is Fox News’ aviation correspondent.