What’s with those annoying safety briefings?

Aviation has a boundless tendency to take the simplest ideas and present them in language as convoluted as possible. Nothing is a more glittering example of this than the safety briefing—twenty-five seconds of useful information hammered into seven minutes of rigmarole so weighed down with extraneous language that the crew may as well be talking Urdu or speaking in tongues.

Whether prerecorded and shown over the entertainment system or presented the old-fashioned way, mime style, the safety demo is legal fine print come to life, stuffed with worthless instruction and redundant airline-ese. “At this time, we do ask that you please return your seat backs to their full and upright positions.” Why not “Please raise your seat backs?” Or my favorite: “Federal law prohibits tampering with, disabling, or destroying any lavatory smoke detector.” Are those not the same bloody things? Doesn’t “tampering with” pretty much cover it?

There’s a trend now with airlines trying to out-cute each other, setting their briefings to music, using animation, adding celebrity cameos, whatever. I don’t know whether this is supposed to entertain people or encourage more of them to pay attention, but all it really does is give them a headache. Merely setting all of this ornamental gibberish to music, while it might generate a little publicity and a bit of social media buzz, does not make it more compelling. It also undermines the purpose of the briefing in the first place. If safety is really the point, the demo should be taken seriously.

Here’s a better idea: shrink it. With a pair of shears and some common sense, the average briefing could be trimmed to a maximum of a quarter of its length, resulting in a lucid oration that passengers might actually listen to and then remember something that could save their lives. Just hit the bullet points and be done with it. It shouldn’t take more than a minute.

Once upon a time, when riding along as a passenger, I would shoot dirty looks at those who ignored the demo, and I even made a point of paying undue attention just to help the cabin staff feel useful. After a while, realizing that neither the FAA nor the airlines have much interest in cleaning up this blather, I stopped caring. (Note: this does not excuse those of you who insist on carrying on conversations while the announcements are playing, effectively doubling the volume. It’s annoying enough having to listen to a flight attendant explain the operation of a seat belt; we don’t also need to hear the guy in row 25 talking about his favorite seafood restaurant in Baltimore.)

Reach into the seat pocket, and you’ll discover a pictorial version of this same tiresome chatter: the always popular fold-out safety card. These too are a pedantic nod to the lawyers. The talent levels of the artists speak for themselves; the drawings appear to be a debased incarnation of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Still worse are the cards spelling out the emergency exit row seating requirements—an excruciating legal litany set to cardboard and packed with enough regulatory technobabble to set anyone’s head spinning. Exit row passengers are asked to review this information before takeoff, which is a bit like asking them to learn Hungarian in twelve minutes.

And what’s ironic is that while airlines and regulators insist on burdening people with this all this prattle, one of the most potentially valuable pieces of instruction is almost always missing: a warning on what to do — or, more accurately, what not to do — in an emergency evacuation. I’m talking about carry-on bags.

In several recent on-the-ground emergencies, including at least three cases of a plane catching fire, numerous passengers could be seen exiting with heavy pieces of luggage. I cannot overemphasize how unsafe this is. Luggage slows people down, impedes their access to the aisles and exits, and turns the escape slides into a deadly slalom. Yet we keep seeing it. In Toronto, in Las Vegas, in Chicago, in Dubai. Flight attendants are yelling, “Leave your stuff!” but they’re being ignored. People are digging through the bins for their computers and backpacks; here’s a guy coming up the aisle with his roll-aboard.

I’d wager most of my savings account that you’ll never be involved in an evacuation. And those that do occur are, nine times out of ten, precautionary. But if it does happen, the crew might not be fully certain of what it’s dealing with, and you should never take the situation lightly. Imagine an evacuation that starts out orderly and calm but then turns to terror after smoke or fire break out. Now people are screaming, and there’s a mad rush for the exits, but the aisle is clogged with suitcases dropped by panicked passengers. Your computer, your Kindle, your electric toothbrush, your underwear, and your sudoku books—none of those things is worth risking your life over. Not to mention the lives of the passengers behind you, who can’t get to the door because your twenty-six-inch Tumi is in the way.

And although you can’t always see it in videos or photos, those inflatable slides are extremely steep. They are not designed for convenience or for fun. They are designed for no other purpose than to empty a plane of its occupants as rapidly as possible. You’ll be coming down from over two stories high in the case of a wide-body jet, at a very rapid clip, with others in front of you and right behind you. Even without bags, people are often injured going down the slides. This is expected. Add carry-ons to the mix, and somebody is liable to be killed—smacked on the head by your suitcase or baby stroller.

This should be a high-emphasis item in any briefing, stated boldly and clearly. Instead, we get complicated, twenty-step directions on how to put on a lifejacket, as if anybody might remember them as they’re jumping into the water. (I could also mention that while neither is likely, a runway evacuation is a lot more likely than a water landing.)

Leave your things behind. It all will be returned to you later, no worse for wear. And if, in that rarest of rare cases, it winds up incinerated, you should be happy to have lost it. Lest it have been you in there.


As for announcements made by pilots, there are company guidelines for what’s acceptable tone and content. You’ll find stipulations against discussions of politics, religion, and anything derogatory.  Sayeth your General Operations Manual, chapter five, verse 12: Jokes, off-color innuendo or slurs of any kind are forbidden.  Thou shalt maintain only nonconfrontational rapport, lest the Chief Pilot summon and smite thee.  (I strongly advocate the recitation of college football scores be added to the list of prohibitions, but that’s just me.)  Rules might also restrict — and not without good intentions — the use of potentially frightening language or alarming buzzwords. One airline I worked for had a policy banning any announcement that began with the words, “Your attention please.”

“Your attention please. Southeastern Central Nebraska Tech has just kicked a last minute field goal to pull ahead of North Southwestern Methodist State, 31-28.”

To me, one important thing is to avoid overburdening people with information they can’t use.  Take the weather.  It’s my hunch that nobody cares that the wind is blowing from the southwest at eleven knots, or what the dew point is.  They want to know if it’s sunny, cloudy, rainy or snowy, and what the temperature is.

Another no-no is, or should be, launching into complicated, jargon-rich explanations. “Yeah, uh, ladies and gentlemen, looks like three one left at Kennedy just fell to less than an eighth. It’s under six hundred right now on all three RVR.  They’re calling it Cat three, and we’re only Cat two up here, so, um, we’re gonna do a few turns over the VOR, then spin around and shoot the ILS to four right. They’ve got a three-hundred and a half on that side.”


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