Yeah, I Listen To The Cabin Briefing


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.