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If a passenger on a part 121 airline flight on an N-registered aircraft refuses to evacuate (or insists on evacuating last, to avoid getting in others' way), would (s)he be forced to evacuate? Assume that his/her presence is not interfering with the evacuation of others.

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  • $\begingroup$ Are you asking about an "N" numbered aircraft? Also, what type of operation (e.g. Airline- FAR 121, FAR 125, FAR 91, etc.)? $\endgroup$
    – user22445
    Jul 5, 2023 at 3:15
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    $\begingroup$ @757toga I edited the question. Part 121, US plane $\endgroup$
    – Someone
    Jul 5, 2023 at 3:42
  • $\begingroup$ The only situations I can think of where this has happened were passengers who were injured and incapable of evacuating themselves. In those cases, ARFF (airport rescue and firefighting) crews normally evacuate them. This is why ATC wants the number of people onboard the aircraft when they declare an emergency - so that ARFF knows how many people to look for and will not be risking their own lives entering a burning airplane to evacuate people when the aircraft is already empty. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Jul 5, 2023 at 22:49
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    $\begingroup$ Just referring to the "insists on evacuating last, to avoid getting in others' way": I think you are much more likely to get in others' way if you do that. For instance, if there are others behind you in your seat row, you'd be holding them up; even if you have a window seat, at least some of the people passing by you are likely to stop and ask if you're okay, or tell a flight attendant that they saw someone still sitting in their seat, which will probably delay things more than if you just got up and evacuated with the others. $\endgroup$
    – rob74
    Jul 6, 2023 at 5:14

3 Answers 3

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This is an extremely hypothetical sort of situation, since most rational people are very easily persuaded to follow flight attendant commands and leave a distressed aircraft.

In the moment, the question would be who would "force" a passenger to evacuate, and how. The flight attendants would give verbal commands, but if those are disobeyed, very very few flight attendants would have the physical ability to force a resisting adult off the aircraft. (Remember the passenger who was forcibly deplaned off a UAL flight by not-quite-airport-security a few years ago? Not a particularly big guy, and it was all that the two almost-security-guards could do to get him off the airplane. The trespasser later sued and won... further commentary omitted.) Pilots might have a little more going for them, both in average size/strength and in terms of perceived authority, but at the end of the day, I'm probably not going to go carrying an objecting adult off of the aircraft if they're determined to stay on.

As a legal matter, once a competent authority has told the passenger to leave, they're trespassing if they stay, and at some point down the road, the police (or perhaps airport crash rescue personnel) probably could physically remove them, but that point may be after the emergency that caused the evacuation has been contained.

I suppose one could posit a further hypothetical where the airplane is slowly burning (not that they tend to do that... once they start burning it goes pretty fast) and the passenger wants to stay there to die in the fire... what's the flight crew to do? Knock them out & carry (or drag) them to safety? This is so far down a rabbit trail of improbables that I really have little idea how it would play out, other than, the person in the moment has to assess the situation & make the best decision they can.

Leaving last would scarcely be noticed, and is a rather different question... they're not being "forced to evacuate" nor resisting, they are simply the last one out the door. Well, somebody is going to be last, and the flight attendants are at the doors, not in the middle of the cabin reordering the line of people to (hypothetically) put the wants-to-be-last person somewhere else. Unless a traveling companion insists that the individual stand up & get into the aisle "now" rather than later, nobody is likely to force them to go other than when they want to.

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  • $\begingroup$ I suspect they meant "legally required", not "physically forced" (since they asked "would they" rather than "should they" or "could they"). But it would be best to ask for clarification. $\endgroup$
    – Barmar
    Jul 5, 2023 at 14:46
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    $\begingroup$ I expect a more likely scenario is that someone believes they'd be safer if they stay on the plane, or they don't feel like there's much risk one way or the other and they'd prefer to just wait on the plane rather than walking halfway down a mountain or whatever. Although of course the crew is presumably much more likely to know what's best in that scenario, compared to a random passenger. I don't expect they're likely to face much consequences from that, apart from possibly putting their own life at risk. $\endgroup$
    – NotThatGuy
    Jul 5, 2023 at 15:47
  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps if someone didn't know how to swim at all and was worried about leaving a dry plane to go out into a life raft. Of course, successful water landings (ditching) are rare to begin with, and when they do happen water usually gets into the cabin pretty quickly, even if the airplane doesn't break apart. $\endgroup$ Jul 5, 2023 at 20:16
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The problem is the same as those civilian "holdouts" who refuse to evacuate a combat zone. This person is a huge burden to others, diverting resources needed elsewhere; worst of all humanitarian volunteers trying to deliver aid to them, who are then killed or wounded. Selfish indeed.

Crew need to waste time trying to convince you of the situation. Crew also needs to make an assessment whether the issue is that you are of limited mental capacity, because abandoning a mentally-impaired person is a completely different kettle of fish than permitting a holdout to remain. This takes time, and in an aircraft evacuation, time is life.

There have been many accidents where a minute or two was the difference between life and death - from aircraft filling with smoke shortly after evacuation, to filling with smoke while crew was waffling on a decision to evacuate. That last one resulted in loss of all onboard. This is by design: aircraft are designed and certified to be habitable long enough for a viable evacuation.

After everyone else is off, the holdout places further burden and risk onto the crew, because they will engage in heroism to try to save the holdout. And that is likely to get those heroes killed.

The other issue is that almost by definition, the holdout is operating on faulty or incomplete information. They don't understand how planes are certified. They haven't seen the certification data for this plane. They don't have the situational awareness of what exactly is happening on the plane. This is a cognitive bias in how humans evaluate risk: TLDR: we're rubbish at it.

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A quote from a flight attendant concerning the evacuation of wheelchair users states that

After people have stopped coming to our assigned exit during an evacuation, we’re trained to go through the cabin.

Which suggests that anyone who wants to evacuate last (or not at all) wouldn't come to the attention of the cabin crew until all or most of the other passengers had disembarked.

The same article has a United flight attendant saying:

My duty is to make sure every passenger gets off the plane. I will do whatever I can to make sure the disabled passengers on my flight are safely evacuated. If I can’t do it alone, I will find someone else who can help me. If it is possible to get you off, you’re coming with me. Regarding the aisle chair-anything is an option. It would need to be reachable and available. Whatever will work in the fastest time. That’s what we are expected to do.

Although that is in relation to disabled rather than unwilling passengers.

Apparently cabin crew are trained to drag disabled passengers off the aircraft, but I guess there is an assumption that they wouldn't be resisting. Also, the Captain is always supposed to be the last person off, but who knows what would happen if the cabin was in flames or full of smoke and someone was arguing the point.

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