The hidden aircraft cabin safety features you didn’t know existed

Apr 9, 2022

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Boarding a flight, you should be greeted by the welcoming smiles of your crew. For up to the next 17 hours, these friendly people will make sure that you’re kept comfortable, well-fed and watered. When arriving at your destination, they’ll wave you goodbye and you may even thank them for their hospitality.

However, beyond the ovens and drinks trollies, there is a supply of other equipment which you may never see. In fact, some of this extra equipment is something that the crew will rarely use and others they will never use. However, they are trained every year to ensure that, should they need to, they know exactly what to do.

Hidden fire extinguishers and Toilet Smoke Detection system

Most flights these days are non-smoking flights and for very good reason. The threat of an inflight cabin fire is one of the biggest risks to the safety of an aircraft, so the fewer opportunities there are for this to happen, the better. That said, every so often people think it’s acceptable to sneak off to the bathrooms for a smoke.

To prevent this from becoming a catastrophe, all toilets have a smoke detector and fire extinguisher system. As soon as smoke is detected in the bathroom, it triggers a number of warning systems to the crew.

Aircraft toilets have a smoke detector and fire extinguisher system fitted

The smoke detector horn sounds in the bathroom, the status light outside the toilet flashes amber, a master warning horn goes off in the flight deck, a continuous chime sounds in the cabin and the ‘Smoke Detected’ pop-up is displayed on all the cabin panels around the aircraft.

The cabin crew will then respond to deal with the alarm as per their safety training.

In addition to the smoke detector in the bathroom, there is also an automatic fire extinguisher system beneath the sink. Should the contents of the bin (normally paper towels) catch fire, the heat will cause the extinguisher system to automatically deploy. This discharges a non-halon vapour into the bin, starving the fire of oxygen and putting it out.

Fire Fighting Equipment

Being made aware that there’s a fire in a bathroom is no use unless the crew are able to do something about it. To help extinguish the fire, the crew are provided with several pieces of firefighting equipment.

Smoke Hood and Fire Gloves

Before going to fight a fire, it’s important that the individual protects themselves as much as possible. To do this, smoke hoods are distributed around the plane so that one is never too far away should it be needed in a hurry.

The crew are trained to remove this from its packaging and pull it over their heads where a seal then creates an airtight barrier. A concealed oxygen generator in the hood is then activated, allowing the individual to breathe normally whilst dealing with the fire.

Fireproof gloves are also used to help protect the individual’s hands.

Fire Extinguisher

Most aircraft carry Halon fire extinguishers, also located at strategic points around the aircraft so one is never too far away. These last for around 15 seconds and remove oxygen from the space into which they are sprayed, starving the fire of its ability to burn.

This is another reason why it’s important for the crew to use the smoke hoods whilst fighting a fire.

Automated External Defibrillator

Being 43,000ft above the Atlantic Ocean in the middle of the night can feel like a very remote place. Particularly if this is the time that your heart decides to go into cardiac arrest. Fortunately, most commercial aircraft carry an Automated External Defibrillator (AED).

The crew are trained in how to use these machines but they are the type found these days in places like shopping centres and stadiums. The equipment will provide simple and clear instructions to the person using it in how to attach it to the person having the heart attack and what to do.

Emergency Equipment

As with all things aviation, we never expect something to go wrong, but we always plan for it should that tiny possibility actually occur. With that in mind, all aircraft carry a variety of safety equipment that may never be used but is always checked by engineers and crew before each flight.

Flashlights

You may have noticed these at each crew station with a small light flashing which indicates that the light is working and charging correctly. They are placed at each crew station for easy access should they be needed during an evacuation in darkness or any other safety-critical situation.

Megaphone

During an evacuation, it may be necessary to make announcements to passengers once outside the aircraft. Doing this by voice alone may be futile, so there are megaphones that the crew remove from the aircraft before exiting down the slide.

Lifejackets

You’ll know that there is a lifejacket under every seat, but have you ever wondered what children or even babies would do should they need to escape onto the water? For these younger passengers, airlines provide either child lifejackets which are just smaller versions of the ones under each seat, or, for infants, a life cot.

These devices inflate and have a waterproof zipped door at the end. The parent can then put the baby inside the life cot where they will be safe and protected from the elements.

Airlines provide life cots for infants (Image survitec.com)

Escape Path Lighting

Pointed out to you by the cabin crew during each safety demonstration, the lighting really does vary from type to type and even from variant to variant. On the 787-8 and 787-9, this system consists of lights fitted into the armrests of the aisle seats. This provides lighting at low-level to guide passengers toward an exit.

On the 787-10, the system doesn’t use lights in the seats but a photoluminescent strip along the floor. This is charged by the cabin lights before departure and can then last up to 16 hours. even if the flight length exceeds this, the strips can be topped up during the flight by use of cabin lighting.

Emergency Lighting

Cabin lighting is designed to help you feel relaxed and peaceful whilst onboard an aircraft. Depending on the time of day and the stage of flight, the crew can change the lighting scene to make the cabin environment best suited for the conditions. During daylight boarding it will be set to its brightest setting, during evening boarding it will be set to a peaceful glow and for sleeping, some airlines even have a star effect on the ceiling.

However, the cabin lighting also performs a very important safety role in helping you to find your way to the exits in the case of an emergency evacuation.

If the worst should happen and the aircraft experiences an incident during take-off or landing, there’s a possibility that there could be an interruption to the normal electrical power supply from the engines. If this happens at night, the cabin will suddenly be plunged into darkness. This is why the cabin lights are dimmed for takeoff and landing at night, to help your eyes adjust to the lack of light in the case of an emergency evacuation.

However, to help in these situations, aircraft have an emergency lighting system that automatically kicks into action, powered by the aircraft battery.

On the 787 Dreamliner, this system illuminates the green signs over the doors, indicating where the exit is. There are also 2 other smaller green signs on either side of the door at knee level. If you are crawling towards an exit to avoid smoke, these signs will then be at your head height making them easier to see.

There is also lighting in the ceiling that shines down on the door sill to help you see where the aircraft ends and the evacuation slide begins.

Each door on the 787 has 3 green signs indicting it as an exit. If the cabin lighting should fail, these signs are illuminated by the aircraft battery (Image by Charlie Page/TPG)

 

Evacuation Slides

In the event of an emergency evacuation, each door has a slide that automatically inflates when the door is opened, allowing passengers rapid exit down to the ground and away from the aircraft.

The slide is stored inside a container on the inside of the door, known as the slide bustle. This is the large lump that sticks out at the base of the door that looks very much like an inviting ledge to sit on. Please, do not do this.

When the doors are opened in an emergency, a pneumatic power assist system forcefully flings the door open. This causes the slide to be pulled from its stowage, starting the process that automatically inflates the slide. On the 787 it takes less than 10 seconds from when the door handle is initially rotated to the slide being fully inflated and ready for an evacuation.

If an evacuation is conducted in darkness, there are battery-powered lights on the side of the slide that illuminate the path down and also at the base to illuminate the landing area enabling passengers to see where they are going as they come off the slide.

The main part of the slide is a low friction material that helps passengers slide down quickly. However, this speed would most likely result in a pile-up of bodies at the bottom of the slide so at the bottom of the slide there is a high friction pad. As the sliding passenger hits this pad, their lower body is slowed down but the inertia of their upper body physically throws them up onto their feet.

As this body naturally tries to control this change in velocity, it results in the person naturally breaking into a run away from the base of the slide. Exactly what is needed to clear the area and allow other passengers to evacuate down behind them

So what stops the slide from inflating every time the door is opened for normal boarding and disembarkation? The clever part here is when you hear that announcement, “Crew, doors to automatic”.

When doing this, the crew move a lever on the door which fixes the slide to the floor of the aircraft. When the door is then opened, the slide is physically dragged from the bustle and the inflation process begins, as can be seen in the video below.

When approaching the gate, the crew change the door back to manual mode, disengaging the slide from the floor and allowing the door to be opened normally.

On Water

If the aircraft has landed on the water, not only do the slides act as a way out of the aircraft, but they also serve as rafts, holding up to 66 passengers. Each raft has a survival kit, including items such as flares, a first aid kit, flashlights, drinking water, watermarking dye and a canopy.

The crew can then use the canopy rods to cover the raft, protecting the occupants from the weather.

Oxygen

Drop Down Oxygen

At 43,000ft, often the cruising altitude for the 787 Dreamliner, you have around 12 seconds to put that mask on before you start to become so oxygen-starved that you’ll be unable to do it yourself.

You’re probably familiar with the same old chat from the flight attendants about “should the cabin pressurisation fails” blah blah blah at which point you go back to your Candy Crush. The thing is, this is some of the most useful information in the safety briefing and could really make a difference should the day come when those masks drop in front of your face.

All pressurised commercial aircraft have an emergency oxygen system that will deploy should the air in the cabin become too thin to breathe. On the 787, this comprises of oxygen cylinders stored beneath the cabin floor and masks that drop down from the ceiling above the passenger seats providing enough oxygen for around 60 minutes. This is plenty of time for the pilots to descend to an altitude where it is safe to remove the masks, even if the aircraft was over high mountainous terrain at the time.

One mask is supplied for each passenger seat, plus one extra mask for each block of seats to cater for any infants on their parent’s lap. There is one mask above each flight attendant’s seat and two masks which fall in the galley area. It’s for this reason why crew don’t like too many passengers in the galley at one time. If there is a sudden loss of pressurisation, there may not be enough masks nearby for everyone.

In each toilet, there are two masks. No, not for the reasons that you’re thinking but one for the parent and one for the infant who is in there with them.

Oxygen Bottles

It may be necessary during a loss of cabin pressurisation for the crew to move around before it is safe for them to come off the drop-down oxygen. For this, there are several bottles of oxygen located around the aircraft with their own masks attached. The crew are then able to use these bottles to move around the cabin to deal with any issues.

In addition, these bottles can be used if a passenger becomes unwell. Sometimes providing 100% oxygen to a passenger who has become faint may be all that is needed to get them feeling normal again.

Bottom Line

Beyond the flatbeds and fancy dinnerware, there’s far more in the cabin of an aircraft than you might initially imagine. Aircraft are designed with safety considerations first and then all the comfort and luxury are added around that base.

From escape slides to fire extinguishers and megaphones to infant flotation cots, there is safety equipment provided for almost every eventuality. Chances are that you’ll never get to see these in action but if you do, have faith knowing that your crew are well trained in how to use the.

Featured Image by anilyanik / Getty Images.

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