Pre-Flight Safety Briefing

Readers have come forward with some amusing, if cynical, comments regarding the pre-flight safety briefing offered by the cabin crew. The style of these briefings has always been a pet peeve of mine — their importance betrayed by turning a few minutes of important information into several minutes of profligate banality. The speech has become, at this point, pure camp — legal fine print turned into (bad) performance art and honed to ludicrous perfection.

Some background: In America, those of us involved in the day-to-day operations of commercial flying work under the jurisdiction of a vast web of rules known as the Federal Aviation Regulations, or FARs. Commercial aviation has grown tremendously both in size and complexity, which naturally has increased the size and scope of applicable regulation. However, while size and scope are one thing, decipherability and practicality are something else.

The FARs are an enormous, frequently unintelligible volume. Their fatty babble shows off aviation’s flair for the arcane, and there is no more glaring example of prolix rigmarole than the dreaded safety briefing. Ask any frequent traveler what the best sleeping pill is for the anxious flyer, and it’s the rote recitation covering seat belts, life vests and oxygen masks — so weighed down with extraneous language that they’re completely without impact.

The briefing card outlining requirements for seating in exit rows has set a new standard. The exit row seating rule was a controversy for some time. The result: an interminable, bafflingly verbose card packed with enough technobabble to set anyone’s head spinning. Exit row passengers are asked to review this card before takeoff.

On one recent flight passengers were subjected the phrase “at this time” repeated on thirteen occasions. “At this time we ask that you please return your seat backs to their full and upright positions.” Why not, “Please straighten your seat backs.” Meanwhile almost every airline includes the following: “Federal law prohibits tampering with, disabling, or destroying any lavatory smoke detector.” Aren’t tampering with, disabling, and destroying, essentially the same things? How can you destroy something without having tampered with it?

With a pair of shears and common sense, a typical briefing can be trimmed to about half its length with no sacrifice of information. The result is a cleaner oration that people will actually listen to. As part of a college paper on air safety, I once turned a typical 6-minute briefing into 2.5 concise, polite minutes of useful instruction.
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This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.