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Two parts to this:

  • Do passengers tend to behave in ideal ways?
  • How do the cabin crew behave?

We know what's supposed to happen: the passengers are supposed to follow instructions, leave possessions behind not inflate their life-jackets inside the aircraft, and so on.

To what extent does this actually happen?

I know for example that passengers have inflated their life-jackets inside the aircraft (with tragic results, in the case of Ethiopian Airlines 961, where some passengers became trapped inside and drowned as a result). I can bet that some passengers will inevitably want to insist on gathering some tremendously important belongings.

I assume also for example that the management of the emergency exits isn't simply left in the hands of the passengers sitting next to them, but that the crew as far as possible take charge, and that generally they become ferociously assertive and intolerant of any nonsense from recalcitrant passengers.

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    $\begingroup$ You have answered your own question. Passengers generally do not behave according to the ideal model and yes, crew become ferociously assertive. $\endgroup$ – Simon Jul 27 '16 at 21:52
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    $\begingroup$ Look for the life vests on this image of US Airways 1549 ditching in the Hudson. 33 passengers out of 150 got their life vest with them when leaving the cabin, and only 4 completed its donning. $\endgroup$ – mins Jul 28 '16 at 1:22
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    $\begingroup$ I had a teacher in high school who said that she previously worked as a flight attendant. She once told a story that she accidentally inflated a life vest during the safety announcements. $\endgroup$ – Daniel Allen Langdon Jul 28 '16 at 3:55
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    $\begingroup$ @ManuH The first statement is somewhat correct/okay, but the second statement contains stereotypes. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jul 28 '16 at 13:15
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    $\begingroup$ You are asking a typical outcome from a very highly untypical event... Quite hard to give a definitive answer $\endgroup$ – Antzi Aug 3 '16 at 17:04
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In the emergency landing of Emirates Boeing 777, EK521, 300 souls including 282 passengers successfully evacuated an aircraft that landed with only the left side of the main undercarriage extended, and was already on fire before it had stopped moving.

The aircraft was severely tilted over to one side, which must have made movement inside very difficult. Within a few minutes an explosion threw large pieces high into the air (possibly a slide or wing part) and the fuselage was gutted by the fire.

So at least in one case where one might expect very frightened passengers packed into a burning airliner to panic dangerously, it appears that they did not, and evacuated safely (one crew member was apparently hospitalised).

It's only one case, not enough to describe what typically happens, but please add to this answer with further examples to make it so.

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  • $\begingroup$ The Gimli landing recount by crews, which was the topic of a Mayday document, is full of details about the passengers mindings and actions, including the evacuation. $\endgroup$ – mins Jan 22 '18 at 9:49
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In real life what happens ranges from cool, collected action to panic. In an accident with many people there will a spectrum of behavior. In an accident things happen quickly and even with extensive training many people will become stressed or panic and react incorrectly. I was once with an instructor who had thousands of hours of flight experience who panicked on a training flight while I remained calm, even though I was only a 20-hour student at the time. You simply can't predict what any given person will do when a crisis occurs.

On Flight 1549, the ditching of an airliner into the Hudson River, the passengers and crew remained relatively calm, but still made many mistakes. For example, only 33 of the 150 passengers retrieved their life vest, and only a few of them put it on. Most of the 33 who had the jacket simply carried it in their hand. (It is impossible to put on a life jacket in the water, which is why it must be put on before exiting the plane, but only inflated after exiting a plane--quite a tricky requirement if you think about it.) The crew failed to secure the plane for ditching which caused it to take on more water than it should have.

Concerning the Ethiopian flight, I think the life-jacket-inside-plane thing is just concocted. That plane ground looped and broke apart on impact and was flooded with water. Who drowned and who did not had nothing to do with the little water wing things that pass as life jackets on a plane. I think officials just found a few dead people inside the plane with jackets on and made up that story. In all likelihood, the fact that they were wearing them had nothing to do with their death. Whenever an accident occurs, officials always look for excuses and blame and the favorite one is the victim wasn't (or was) wearing a helmet-seat belt-life jacket or whatever. It's just a political game.

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