Japan Airlines’ great evacuation is no miracle—it’s a product of training

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When a Japan Airlines (JAL) plane collided with a coast guard aircraft and caught fire at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport on Jan. 2, five out of six people on the smaller plane died but but everyone on JAL flight 516—367 passengers and 12 crew members—made it out safely.

It wasn’t just luck. Everyone onboard the Japanese airliner—crew members and passengers—followed the process for a textbook 90-second evacuation. Because the public address system was damaged, flight attendants used megaphones to facilitate the escape. They judged where they fire was the worst and steered passengers to just three (out of eight) exits on emergency slides.

Unlike other recent emergency evacuations, reportedly no passengers on the JAL flight tried to take their carry-on luggage with them. That likely helped increase speed and reduce risk. JAL’s detailed airplane safety video , which plays before every flight, also may have contributed to the obedient passenger behavior. The video shows not only the right way but also the wrong ways to evacuate. The animated clip has been praised for being gripping but also very informative—unlike other pre-flight safety videos that feature big stars and convoluted humor and perhaps don’t effectively communicate key safety messages.

In any case, there’s now ample evidence that JAL deserves the full marks for safety that it gets from rankings sites like AirlineRatings and SkytraxRatings.

The legacy of the deadly 1985 Japan Airlines crash

On Aug. 12, 1985, JAL-123 crashed on the ridges of Mt. Osutaka, killing 520 people in the deadliest single-aircraft accident in aviation history. JAL was not found to be at fault—Boeing made defective repairs on the aircraftbut the fatal accident is still the driving force behind the airline putting safety front and center.

“In face of the pain and grief of the bereaved families and public distrust in airline safety, we pledged that we would never again allow such a tragic accident to occur,” the company notes on the webpage for its Safety Promotion Center, a training facility for employees that serves as a constant reminder of the damage from three decades ago. There, it keeps aircraft debris, the cockpit voice recorder, passengers’ personal belongings, newspaper reports, and photographs of the crash site on display.

New crew members undergo rigorous evacuation and rescue training, including written exams, case study discussions, and practical training using different scenarios, for up to three weeks before being allowed to serve in commercial flights, a former JAL flight attendant told the BBC. The training is repeated every year.

One more thing: The Airbus A350’s fire-safe design

JAL seems to have been well-prepped for the recent emergency. But also, a lot has changed in airplane design since 1985. The Airbus A350, built largely from more fire-resistant carbon fiber composites than earlier materials, didn’t go up in flames instantaneously. The structure held up just long enough for people to escape to safety. It only fully caught fire two minutes later.

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