Yeah, I Listen To The Cabin Briefing

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In the ultimate act of jabbing a finger into the eye of fate, I’m writing today’s blog from seat 19D on a Southwest Airlines flight from Tampa to Denver. I tried to get the window seat directly abeam of the fan section of one of the engines, but passengers similarly casting caution to the wind had already grabbed them, along with the overhead space I desperately wanted for my expensive camera gear.

The topic du jour is the cabin safety briefing. As we reported earlier this week, a viral photo showing passengers on the ill-fated WN 1380 with improperly worn oxygen masks raised the issue of how effective cabin briefings are. Or, more accurately, do passengers pay attention to them and embrace the simple safety instructions therein? Easy answer: No to both. Think back to your last airline flight. Did you listen to the briefing?

I actually do, as a matter of fact. And on today’s flight, I did the same. I have two reasons for doing this, both related to my background as an aviator. The first is the quaint notion of professional courtesy. As I’ve noted before, flight attendants aren’t waiters and waitresses, but trained professionals meant to enhance the safety prospects of panicked passengers who, in the event of an accident, are too clueless to react because they’re even more clueless for having ignored the briefing. If a trained flight attendant is going to bother with this, I can take a few moments from my meaningful embrace of a seat cushion to at least listen. I always make eye contact in counterpoint to those who don’t.

Second, the likelihood of an accident on an airliner is so remote that it’s practically zero, but it’s not really zero. ^%$# happens even in a 10-9 universe. Paying attention reminds me to keep my seatbelt on in case of severe turbulence. It’s not so uncommon and I have seen the effects of it in both airliners and small aircraft. It gives me the willies. Also, I have another quaint habit of counting the seat rows to the nearest exit. I would never need that silly knowledge because I’ll never have to escape a smoke-filled cabin. But what the hey, what else do I have to do here other than peck away at this blog? (Today’s number is five, by the way.) 

I’m a frequent Southwest customer for a short list of reasons, but one is that the cabin and flight crews often apply a humorous touch to their work that occasionally veers to the cynical. After United had that unfortunate set-to with a passenger disinclined to vacate an overbooked seat, a Southwest flight attendant closed his welcome to Seattle thank you with “at Southwest, we beat fares, not passengers.” Predictably, the cabin erupted, so someone was listening. I now wonder if the airline will discourage its FAs from adding a little fun to their briefings, which they often do. I certainly hope not. Any means of keeping people engaged is a net plus, however it can be done.

Those stressed-out passengers in the photo took an unfair drubbing on social media, although not so much in our commentary sections, I’m satisfied to say. Whether their lack of proper use of the oxygen masks—which are more like kiddie drink cups than proper safety equipment—matters less to me than the insult of people passing judgment on others in duress from the warm safety of their homes and offices. In my view, unless you’ve been there and done that, you ought to respect the actions of those who have the photo to prove they have.

I don’t normally buy the Wi-Fi option on airline flights, but today I’m making the exception, in a brash attempt to gouge out fate’s other eye. I’m pushing the publish button somewhere over eastern Oklahoma and on the off chance I don’t make it, tell my wife I love her and give Wriggly dog one of those big Milk Bone treats.

TUESDAY A.M. ADDITION: A reader wrote to ask if wearing your seatbelt would keep you from being sucked out of the airplane in the event of an explosive decompression. This is probably at the bottom of the list of good reasons to keep the belt fastened and may be impossible to accurately answer because there are so many variables related to size of the cabin, the breach and the cabin differential. The myth of a bullet hole causing explosive decompression is just that, a myth.

And speaking of myths, Myth Busters once did a segment on explosive decompression that eerily presaged the 1380 accident. It gives a good idea of the forces involved in a cabin decompression. This clip  shows that a person sitting near a large opening could indeed be drawn out of the cabin, but doesn't address whether a seatbelt would defeat that. It seems unlikely that a passenger could avoid serious injury in such an incident, even if he or she remained inside the cabin.

In 1972, engineers learned the hard way about the so-called size effect of pressurized cabins. In the famous Windsor accident, due to a faulty latching mechanism, the cargo door of a DC-10 departed in flight and the outrush of air from a large cabin crushed the rear cabin floor, significantly damaging or disrupting flight and engine controls. The flight landed safely, but barely. Two years later, a DC-10 in Paris wasn't as lucky. The same door blew off of a Turkish Airlines DC-10 and all 349 people aboard died in the crash. 

Comments (12)

What took you so long? Timely write up Paul. Thanks.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 29, 2018 3:21 PM    Report this comment

Oh, and yep, I buckle up and listen to the cabin briefing.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 29, 2018 3:24 PM    Report this comment

I do read the safety card. Mainly to refresh my memory on how to operate the emergency exits. I would like to see the airlines provided mockups of each exit type to allow those of us seated next to an exit the opportunity to manually work the mechanism a couple of times.

I like your comment on professional respect. Next to controllers, flight attendants have the most stressful job in aviation on a day-to-day basis.

Posted by: kim hunter | April 29, 2018 3:48 PM    Report this comment

Thanks for another brilliant (really!) suggestion. Providing real, working emergency exit door assemblies - and overhead masks, and inflatable life vests - in the passenger lounges (a.k.a. waiting areas) would provide USEFUL entertainment. It certainly would be a pleasant alternative to CNN. I do wonder what TSA would think about passengers practicing their exit-opening skills...

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | April 30, 2018 5:03 AM    Report this comment

I'm impressed you can type coherent sentences in the limited space between the seats. After millions of miles on the airlines, I still haven't mastered the technique. Regarding the briefing, sadly most of the regionals have moved to pre recorded messages that are the same for every flight. It's hard to listen to the same thing over and over.

Posted by: DANA NICKERSON | April 30, 2018 7:46 AM    Report this comment

I guess I do listen to the briefing, or at least look in the FA's general direction. I do read the safety card though, since even Southwest has different model aircraft with slightly different emergency exit procedures, and since I always try to get an exit row seat (depending on which one, it gives me either more leg room or shoulder room), it's good to know that information. Sitting in the exit row also makes counting the rows to the nearest exit pretty trivial.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | April 30, 2018 8:30 AM    Report this comment

Ha! And I thought I was the only one...I also watch the FA briefing and try to make eye contact. Respect for the person and their job function is the primary reason, also letting them know at least one person may actually be absorbing this information may help them to do a better job as well. It's a two way street.

Sometimes I have received some incredulous looks/frowns from adjacent passengers when I actually had the nerve to pull out and look at the safety card from the seat pocket before or during the briefing, but I figure I'll be the one surviving if and when the unthinkable happens. They can frown on that.

Posted by: A Richie | April 30, 2018 10:06 AM    Report this comment

While I do try to pay attention to the FA briefing, I must admit my mind begins to wander about half way through. Like many of you, I spot my exits and count the rows to each and will look over the seat back card if I am on a different plane than normal. The pre-recorded briefings are a real waste in my view, even though some airlines (like United) do cutesy videos to make it more entertaining. The information on those is so generic as to be almost useless. Even they do not show the oxygen "cup" (I refuse to call it a mask) properly fitted to the actor's face.

I like Southwest's approach to the briefing since they really do try to make it more fun and hope the Feds don't try to change that. One FA held up a rubber chicken when talking about the O2 system. At first, no one noticed until a couple passengeres began to laugh. The rest of the cabin looked up to see what was so funny. After a good chuckle all around, she continued with full attention and a real mask.

Hope you made it to Denver with you and all your gear intact.

Posted by: John McNamee | April 30, 2018 11:34 AM    Report this comment

I'm glad to see I'm not the only one... though it sure seems like it during the briefing. Can't say that I fly commercial often - between the TSA crap on the ground and the cattle car crowding in the air - I've avoided commercial flight for at least the last 15 years or so.

But when I have flown commercial I always pay attention to the briefing and I read the card and I count rows (if I'm unfortunate enough to not get in an exit row). Naturally, I always keep my seat belt on during the entire flight. And I always felt like I was the only one.

But then I have a background operating and maintaining flight simulators for the Air Force. It's amazing how much can go wrong during a short sim flight And there was my time spent flying search and rescue with the CAP and the hazards that frequently presented. Folks rarely seem to get lost during nice weather. Consequently, I may have a deeper appreciation for the many things that can go wrong during a flight that less experienced folk may not share.

I can also highly recommend the altitude chamber training, if you can find time and a facility. I went through it when I lived in Colorado Springs (courtesy of the AF aero club at Peterson AFB) and despite my existing comfort with high altitude I found it remarkably easy to get really stupid and drowsy at 25,000 feet with no oxygen.... 8^)

Posted by: Steve Lindemann | April 30, 2018 12:34 PM    Report this comment

"I now wonder if the airline will discourage its FAs from adding a little fun to their briefings, which they often do. I certainly hope not."

Walt Disney put it best, "Laughter is no enemy of learning."

Posted by: Kirk Wennerstrom | April 30, 2018 6:55 PM    Report this comment

Since I airline in uniform, positioning to assigned airplane, I always pay attention even though I know the routine out of respect for the flight attendants who have to give the briefing every flight they do. As far as TSA is concerned remember they were the ones who insisted the airlines deactivate the emergency masks in the lav compartments!

Posted by: matthew wagner | April 30, 2018 7:18 PM    Report this comment

The account of the person in the aisle seat who helped pull the passenger back in says the woman was only held partially in the plane by her seatbelt.

Posted by: Mike Henricks | May 2, 2018 8:03 AM    Report this comment

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