On Sunday, an AirAsia aircraft en route from Perth, Western Australia to Denpasar in Bali suffered a sudden decompression. The incident occurred less than 25 minutes into the flight, just as the Airbus A320 was reaching its cruising altitude of 33,925 feet. In less than 11 minutes, the jet plunged 20,000 feet before making an emergency landing back in Perth.
This being the 21st Century, it didn’t take long for mobile phone footage of the terrifying incident onboard flight QZ535 to spread around the world via YouTube. Passengers onboard the jet spoke of their horror, telling Australian news stations they feared for their lives and were preparing for the worst.
Luckily the plane landed safely but passengers soon gave troubling accounts about the behaviour of cabin crew – the men and women, passengers were looking towards for comfort and reassurance. In an interview with Seven News Australia, Clare Askew said the “panic escalated” because of the behaviour of cabin crew.
Askew said the flight attendants were “screaming” and “looked tearful and shocked.” Another passenger, Mark Bailey went so far as to describe the cabin crew as being “hysterical.” In fact, Bailey says the flight attendants made the situation a whole lot worse: “There was no real panic before that. Then everyone panicked,” he said of their behaviour.
This was clearly a scary incident for everyone onboard – it’s not like modern airliners routinely suffer sudden decompressions. Most flight attendants will go their entire careers without having to deal with anything remotely as serious as this.
Yet, this still wasn’t the way you’d expect a team of cabin crew to react to such a serious incident. Surely they’re trained to deal with any eventuality?
Make no mistake, a sudden decompression is a serious incident. It can happen for a number of reasons – say a breach of the aircraft hull (although that clearly didn’t happen on this occasion), a leak maybe or a technical fault with the system that pressurises the cabin.
Why a sudden decompression is so serious…
It’s serious because at altitude the air is too thin to sustain life. Pressurising the cabin means aircraft can fly at high altitude without causing harm to anyone onboard. A sudden loss of pressurisation at high altitude, however, will cause hypoxia.
A sudden decompression can cause hypoxia really quickly – a persons ‘time of useful consciousness’ before the effects of hypoxia kick in, is as little as 15 seconds. After that time, the lack of oxygen will prevent you from making rational decisions. Even putting on an oxygen mask will most likely be an impossible task.
What starts off as euphoria or confusion soon turns to unconsciousness and eventually death.
It happened before – The case of Helios Airways flight 522
The classic example of this is Helios Airways flight 522 which crashed into the side of a Greek mountain in 2005. The cabin had suffered a depressurisation and just like in the AirAsia incident, oxygen masks were deployed. Unfortunately, the flight crew didn’t realise the seriousness of the incident. They failed to put on their own oxygen masks and soon slipped into unconsciousness.
The aircraft carried on flying on autopilot until it eventually ran out of fuel. All 121 passengers and crew were killed.
So given the circumstances, you can forgive the AirAsia Cabin Crew for being alarmed. They literally had seconds to grab an oxygen mask and put it on before they suffered the effects of hypoxia. But now comes the bit where things start getting odd…
Where the AirAsia cabin crew went wrong…
Why they then chose to start shouting at passengers is the big question? You want to avoid anything that will make your body use more oxygen than is absolutely necessary. It’s for precisely this reason, aircraft are fitted with automatic announcements that tell passengers and crew to sit down and put on their oxygen masks should a decompression occur. You can clearly hear it in the background of the video footage.
What should the cabin crew have done? Simple – exactly what passengers are expected to do. Grab an oxygen mask, put it on and sit down straight away (oh, and if possible, strap themselves in for a rapid descent).
And boy is it going to be a quick descent back to the safety of a lower altitude. The AirAsia aircraft was an Airbus A320 – According to the manufacturer, the oxygen masks are only designed to give around 15 minutes of oxygen. That doesn’t give the flight crew a lot of time to get the plane to a safe level.
The aircraft didn’t ‘plunge’ 20,000 feet
Up until this point, the media have reported the AirAsia plane ‘plunged 20,000 feet’ as if it were completely uncontrolled. That’s not the case – just standard procedure to get the aircraft to an altitude where oxygen masks aren’t required.
The cabin crew should have known this – in reality, there was cause for concern but certainly not cause for panic.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time AirAsia cabin crew have reacted to serious incidents in a less than calm manner. In May, video footage was captured of flight attendants on an AirAsia X flight from Taipei to Kuala Lumpur screaming in terror when the aircraft was rocked by extreme turbulence.
Things got even more bizarre in June when an AirAsia X pilot urged his passengers to pray when a “technical issue” caused the engines to shudder for nearly two hours. In both cases, the flights landed safely.
Of course, training can only go so far to prepare flight attendants for an emergency situation. No one knows how they might react until the point at which something happens. No doubt, however, there will be some serious questions being asked at AirAsia HQ.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.