Air Passengers Are Laughing in the Aisle Seats

PUBLISHED: March 14, 2019

It wasn’t the typical airplane-safety presentation. "If by chance your life jacket does not inflate, grab your neighbor and hang on for dear life!" declared the voice on the PA system. About oxygen masks: "Ignore those and grab a flight attendant and get some air." And: "Let’s be honest, only those of you who paid the extra $49.99 get any oxygen."

As they buckled up in Orlando, Fla., en route to Colorado Springs, Colo., the Frontier Airlines passengers responded with hoots and applause. But whether in-flight shtick is the best way to lure passengers into paying attention is a question airlines are struggling to answer.

When a plane goes down, as in Ethiopia Sunday, most travelers reflect briefly on safety. To be sure, preflight instruction is of no use in a crash like that. But several incidents in recent years resulted in injury to passengers who didn’t know how to use oxygen masks and life jackets, despite having sat through the routine preflight announcements.

The wisecracking steward on the Frontier flight was Daniel Sandberg, who at times begins his briefing by introducing the attendant in the front of the plane as his wife and the one in back as his mistress. His three-minute routine is not officially sanctioned by the airline, but it isn’t exactly discouraged either. In fact, many larger carriers are taking Mr. Sandberg’s cue. United Airlines now encourages its flight attendants to "show more of their personality" when briefing passengers. Beginning this spring, United also intends to use shorter safety announcements with easier-to-follow language.

No one would quarrel with simplified language. Why must passengers in this day and age be told to obey "placards"? Why do airline crews persist in speaking of "service items" when they mean trash? That airlines prefer "water landing" to "crash at sea" is understandable, but speaking in riddles does little to promote safety.

Onboard video systems, first introduced in the early 1980s, gave carriers the option of delivering recorded safety briefings. It wasn’t until 2007, however, that humor crept into those. An early example was Virgin America’s animated briefing featuring black-and-white doodles and quips such as: "For the 0.0001% who have never operated a seat belt . . ."

Airlines have since invested millions in increasingly lavish productions, most featuring beautiful people and gorgeous scenery while carefully avoiding anything that looks like an actual airplane. A recent Hawaiian Airlines briefing shows life vests on a kayak and no-smoking signs on a lava bed, while the image of a plane is drawn in the sand on a Hawaiian beach.

Turkish Airlines uses Lego characters in its briefing, with sophomoric advice such as: "Step 1: Be sure you’re inside the airplane." Delta has a safety video tracing flight-attendant uniform styles through the decades, including the white gloves worn in the 1940s. Air New Zealand, which has produced more than a dozen big-budget safety videos, currently features a musical romp titled "It’s Kiwi Safety" with a cast of 600.

Research conducted in Australia a few years ago found that only one-third of passengers could recall "key safety messages" in preflight announcements. When humor was added, retention rose 13%; when celebrities gave the briefing, it went up another 5%.

British Airways uses actors such as Gordon Ramsay, Michael Caine and Gillian Anderson in briefing videos that are entertaining while remaining properly informative—and helping a good cause to boot. Produced in cooperation with the charity Comic Relief, the safety videos have raised more than $20 million for needy kids.

What’s notable about the British Airways videos is that they focus on safety information. Too many other airlines seem intent on producing eye-catching briefings to entertain rather than inform. When Mr. Sandberg advises Frontier passengers that "parachutes are not provided," it may prompt titters but doesn’t promote safety. United should rethink its advice to inject more "personality" into what is, after all, very serious business.

Despite recent crashes, airline travel is remarkably safe. But passengers are foolish to ignore information that could be lifesaving, and airlines only compound the foolishness with briefings that cross the line between information and entertainment.

This month a Turkish Airlines Boeing 777 encountered severe turbulence as it neared New York, forcing oxygen masks to drop and seat belt signs to flash. Thirty people were hurt. A telling moment in one of Turkish Airlines’ preflight videos comes when the Lego characters sing their way through a briefing and a Batman figure interrupts to declare: "Stop! . . . No one wants to hear a song about safety."

(c) Peter Funt. This column originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

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