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Japan aircraft collision demonstrates how safety protocols work

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Japan Airlines Flight 516 caught fire after it collided with a small Coast Guard plane at a Tokyo airport on Tuesday. While five people on the Coast Guard plane died, crew and passengers on the Japan Airlines flight have been praised for quickly and safely evacuating all 379 people on board. So, what does it take to pull off a flight evacuation? President of the Association of Flight Attendants Sara Nelson joins us now to discuss. Sara, what was your reaction to the crash in Japan?

SARA NELSON: The reaction was, this is exactly what we're trained for. These flight attendants executed their jobs perfectly. But this is, of course, not the kind of day at work that we want to have.

MARTÍNEZ: No. Here's the thing. I think so many people fly, and I think our heads are somewhere else, that we don't necessarily know or care what the overarching mission for flight attendants are, from the moment they board a plane to when they disembark. What is that overarching mission, Sara?

NELSON: The purpose of being on the plane is to be able to evacuate passengers in 90 seconds when there is an accident, just exactly like this. That is the reason that in the 1950s, the FAA made sure that there was a minimum number of flight attendants on all aircraft. All aircraft are certified for an evacuation that determines that minimum number. And so that is our primary purpose. In addition to dealing with medical emergencies, dealing with potential terrorist attacks, we're there for your safety first and foremost. That's our purpose. We're thinking about it all the time. We go through rigorous training for that. We go through recurrent rigorous training for that. We do silent reviews before every flight. And we've got that top of mind every day when we go to work.

MARTÍNEZ: So to be clear, not to bring you wine or a blanket or help you with the Wi-Fi, - right? - it's to get you safely off the plane at some point.

NELSON: Look, we like doing those things, and we also like to keep everybody calm. Jamming a bunch of humanity into a metal tube is sometimes really tough, and doing some of those things kind of helps people get through the whole situation. It's all about safety for everybody. But that is not our primary purpose. Our primary purpose is to make sure that you're safe doing this magical thing of flight that we can only do if everybody follows the rules. And those rules are in place because we've been able to make adjustments in aviation based on other accidents, make adjustments, make sure that it is the safest mode of transportation in the world.

MARTÍNEZ: What is that safety training like? You mentioned how rigorous it is.

NELSON: We go through drills to make sure that you can open any kind of aircraft. Many flight attendants fly on different aircraft, different types of configuration, depending upon their aircraft training. We have repetitive drills that give us very clear commands to passengers, because people go into shock into situations like this. We do that three-minute safety video at the beginning of the flight. We hope people pay attention. But in a crisis, people need to be given clear instruction about what to do, and we have clear actions about what we have to do.

These flight attendants also had to deal with the fact that many of the exits were blocked, that they had to redirect people, that they had to make sure people were not bringing their bags and jamming things up, that people were not rushing to the door and creating a jam-up for the exit route. And so that was their primary focus. And that's what we're trained to do. We're trained to look for our leaders and the people who need clear instruction, and the people who might be problems, who we may have to deal with.

MARTÍNEZ: Really quick, Sara, what's the one thing people need to keep in mind if they find themselves in that situation in Japan?

NELSON: The one thing they should keep in mind is first, they need to listen to that safety video. Second, they need to listen for those clear instructions from flight attendants. And I'm just going to say, make sure your shoes are on for takeoff and landing, because that's most often when there's going to be a problem, and you don't want to be dealing with that in this situation.

MARTÍNEZ: Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants. Thanks a lot.

NELSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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