What’s with those annoying safety briefings?

What’s with those flight attendant briefings?  Nobody is listening in the first place, so why are they so long?

In America, commercial flying is governed by a vast tome known as the Federal Aviation Regulations, or FARs — an enormous, frequently unintelligible volume that personifies aviation’s boundless tendency to take the simplest ideas and present them in language as tangled and convoluted as possible.  Of its crown jewels, none is a more glittering example than the safety briefing — 25 seconds of useful information hammered into six minutes of rigmarole so weighed down with extraneous language that the crew may as well be talking Urdu or speaking in tongues.

Whether pre-recorded and shown over the entertainments system, or presented “live,” the old-fashioned way, the safety demo has become a form of camp — a performance art adaptation of legal fine print overflowing with 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.” Excuse me, but are those not the same bloody things?  Doesn’t “tampering with” pretty much cover it?

With a pair of shears and common sense, the average briefing could be trimmed to a maximum of half its length, resulting in a lucid oration that people might actually listen to.  All that’s really needed is a short tutorial on the basics of exits, seat belts, flotation equipment and oxygen masks.  This 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 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 has much interest in cleaning up this ornamental gibberish, I stopped caring.  Note: this does not excuse those passengers who insist on carrying on conversations over the announcements, effectively doubling the volume.  Whether or not we need to hear a flight attendant explain the operation of a sea belt is open to debate, but 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 the same fatty babble: the always popular fold-out safety card.  These too are a pedantic nod to the FARs.  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.  The rules covering who can or can’t sit adjacent to the doors and hatches were a controversy for some time, and one result was a new standard in FAR superfluity — an excruciating 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 Japanese in twelve minutes.

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 31L 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 III, and we’re only Cat II up here, so, um, we’re gonna do a few turns over the VOR, then spin around and shoot the ILS to 22L. They’ve got a three-hundred and a half over there.”



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