Opinion: Nok Air keeping the passengers on a skid off plane for more than an hour was inexcusable

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90 seconds is how long a manufacturer of a new aircraft has to demonstrate that all passengers can be evacuated in an emergency or else the plane would not be allowed to fly.

That is one of the reasons why cabin crews are being trained to evacuate an entire aircraft in less than 90 seconds, after the order to evacuate is made.

The person to make the decision on when to evacuate is the captain.

In the case of the Sunday night incident at Mae Fah Luang International Airport in Chiang Rai, the decision to evacuate the passengers was made more than an hour after the 7-year-old Nok Air flight DD108 skidded off the runway.

Passengers and the crew were also kept in the aircraft and the captain shut down the engines, which in turn turned off the air conditioning and lights in the cabin.

The issue became known to the public after one of the passengers who goes by the name Warangkhana Wongchai on Facebook posted about the ordeal, after having evacuated the aircraft which was carrying as many as 164 passengers.

She said less than 20 passengers were allowed to exit the plane while they were waiting to be collected and remaining passengers were asking the head of the cabin crew to allow them to exit the plane because they were having difficulty breathing but their request were initially denied.

According to her, the head of the cabin crew said that according to protocols, passengers are not allowed to stand on the runway and it was also raining so the remaining passengers must wait on the aircraft until airport vans arrive to take the passengers to the terminal.

For those who may not be aware, the Mae Fah Luang International Airport is a single runway airport which means that if the aircraft had skid off the runway there was no way another aircraft can land or takeoff.

Nearly an hour after the plane skid off the runway, more people started to complain that they were having difficulty breathing while being stuck in the aircraft. It was only then that the head of the cabin crews decided to allow all passengers to disembark by sliding down from the exits, Warangkhana said.

She also said there were only two vans that came to collect the passengers which she expects was one of the reasons for the delay.

The Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand (CAAT) said that they will investigate the captain of the airplane on the reason why he kept the passengers on the plane for that long before allowing them to disembark.

CAAT director-general Sutthipong Kongpool said that the regulator will not pass its judgement on the incident until they heard explanations from the captain.

He said some of the reasons could be that there was no trace of a possible fire and fire trucks were already on scene within one minute after the plane slid off the runway.  

Sutthipong said Mae Fah Luang airport was not equipped with passenger buses and they only have vans which can only fit 10 passengers at a time.

He also said that according to normal protocols, passengers will not be allow on the runway but in an emergency case, they can.

Nok Air said in a statement on Monday that the passengers were kept on the plane because they were unable to connect the stairs to the exits of the plane and in the end, they opted to use the emergency slides instead.

Inexcusable Incident

All and all, it was all inexcusable.

There was no good reason why passengers were kept on the plane for that long.

Even if there was no trace of a fire, it would have surely been safer to transfer the passengers away from the plane as soon as possible.

And why was there only two vans? The airport is called an ‘international’ airport, and they could utilise any vehicle at their disposal to collect the passengers and get them to safety.

None of it make any sense and it showed that the captain and the airport were ill-prepared for an emergency. If the captain was at fault, the airline should also answer why they were not better prepared for such situation.

Nok Air was lucky that no one was injured but risking the lives of the 164 passengers and crew is not something that can be taken for granted.

The explanation of the captain may be able to help clear some of the air but how is the captain and Sutthipong going to explain the issue of a possible fire. If history of aircrafts are to go by, any fire that breaks out in the engines usually goes out of control and is very difficult to control, even with all the fire engines and other equipment that are at the disposal.

The risk that the captain and Nok Air took is inexcusable and their reputational damage is likely to take a hit. This would be worse as Nok Air is barely coming out of the Covid-19 induced airline industry fiasco that nearly brought all airlines in the world to its knees.

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