Whenever there’s an emergency on a plane, we see the same disturbing pictures and videos of passengers who either never watched a pre-flight safety video or simply chose to ignore it. Three examples:
• Passengers escaping crash landings in San Francisco and Dubai, carrying their luggage and not wearing shoes.
• Passengers disembarking a plane in the middle of the Hudson River without their life jackets on.
• Passengers, most recently, on Southwest Flight 1380 who had no idea how to wear an oxygen mask.
I could go on.
So why does this happen and what can be done about it?
Airlines spend millions on safety videos, updating them, making them “watchable” and spicing them up with humor and celebrities in some cases. But no one listens.
Most airline passengers, whether they’re veteran travelers or not, believe that no harm will come to them when they fly. And while it’s true that death-by-flying is extremely rare in commercial aviation, serious injuries do happen, most often because of air turbulence when passengers have ignored the advice to keep seatbelts fastened while sitting, even if the seatbelt sign is off.
And although many frequent fliers think they know what to do in an emergency, in fact most probably haven’t listened to the safety videos in years and if you quizzed them about the content, they’d flunk.
You’ve probably noticed that the content of safety videos is virtually the same no matter what airline you fly. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), whose members are chosen by national regulators such as the FAA in the U.S., establishes basic information that all airlines must include in the videos, according to Campbell Wilson, who produces videos for Singapore Airlines and who spent well over a million dollars redoing Singapore’s latest videos, dispensing safety tips while also showing off some of the island nation’s attractions.
But there’s room for additional advice, at each airline’s discretion. For example, some airlines tell us to keep our shoes on, while others require us to keep the window shades in the up position, during takeoff and landing.
Much of what is included in these safety videos is there because something happened unexpectedly during a past emergency. The bit about waiting to inflate your life jacket until you’re about to jump out of the plane? That’s because when a hijacked Ethiopian Airlines jet ditched in the ocean, many passengers, who inflated while still inside the plane, died when rising waters lifted them to the ceiling, where they were trapped and drowned.
The bit about keeping your shoes on (unless, of course, they’re high heels that might rip the evacuation slides)? When a plane makes an emergency landing, and you have to run away from a burning wreckage on a tarmac hot enough to fry an egg, your feet won’t suffer third degree burns and you’ll be able to run to safety faster.
And yet, airlines continue to create videos that no one watches. (By the way, you’ve paid for the safety video as part of your airfare. Might as well get your money’s worth).
I truly believe that if the videos explained the reasons behind the instructions they give, then people would listen more. For instance, the exhortation to “place the mask over your mouth and nose” could be changed to “place the mask over both your nose and mouth because otherwise you won’t get enough oxygen and you’ll pass out.”
I flew recently on Japan Air Lines. Rather than using humor or celebrities in the video, they use animation and it’s all very serious and straightforward. But it was way more informative than many I’ve seen on other airlines. To demonstrate leaving the plane in an emergency, a line of animated passengers waits at the exit door, and one by one they pull the cord on the life vest as they leave the plane. The video also shows the correct way to jump onto the slide, and when one passenger tries to leave with his bags, the flight attendant stops him from doing so.
I have two suggestions. First, airlines should make it a requirement that passengers put down reading material, iPads and smartphones and watch and listen to the safety briefing. Cabin crew should enforce this, telling, not asking, passengers to pay attention (cabin crew have enough to do already, I realize, but as we’re always told by the captain, “Flight attendants are here primarily for your safety”). Any passenger who refuses to comply could get a stern warning with the ultimate punishment being eviction from the flight. That would send a message that safety is paramount.
And second, although I appreciate a sense of humor, this is no joking matter. I’d like to see all airlines follow JAL’s lead and show in greater detail the do's and don’ts of flight safety.
Plus, I think airlines should take time to explain some of the whys. This doesn’t have to be in the safety video itself, because the longer it lasts the more passengers will tune out. I’d like to see just one fine point explained by the flight attendants or the cockpit crew before each flight, perhaps just before takeoff. As in, “Folks, this is your first officer. Before takeoff I’d like to remind you that in the event of an emergency evacuation it’s imperative that you leave all belongings in the overhead bin or under the seat. Do not bring them with you. Doing so could cause death or injury to other passengers.”
Commercial aviation safety constantly evolves. With each new incident something is learned and hopefully fixed. But no matter how much we learn, passengers need to do their part and put down their devices and pay attention.
George Hobica has worked in the travel industry as an airline employee, entrepreneur and journalist, and has flown on almost every commercial airliner from the DC-3 to the Concorde.