Sexy, serious or safe?

Interior of aircraft with cabin crew approaching
© | R9_RoNaLdO

Safety videos have become part of airline marketing. No longer are cards and videos simply a way of providing safety information; they can be a means of attracting customers and promoting the airline’s brand.

Airlines have a statutory duty to ‘ensure that all passengers are adequately briefed on safety information applicable to their operation’. Why not entertain as well as inform?, they argue.

Air New Zealand’s latest cabin safety video features a terminally cute child, hair-tossing swimsuit models, and the stunning scenery of the Cook Islands. Do these reinforce the cabin safety message, or merely act as an eye candy distraction to passengers? The video has obviously tapped into the zeitgeist—at the time of writing it had had 4,435,785 YouTube views.

Variations on a theme

Another Air New Zealand offering, was also filmed nowhere near an aircraft – Safety Old School Style.

Other Air New Zealand videos have featured everything from rugby (with a streaker) to Hobbits.

Many other airlines have worked, and are working, hard to engage and hold passenger attention. Virgin Atlantic plumped for animation (with captions) and Delta opted for a seasonal theme.

The wonders of nature provide an enviable backdrop to traditional safety messages in Icelandair’s latest video briefing.

Virgin America’s extravagant all-singing, all-dancing video has even inspired a cabin crew member or two to enact solo performances on aircraft with no video screens – definitely above and beyond the call of duty.

Engaging or confusing?

However, there are justifiable concerns about such overly entertaining approaches:

One cabin safety inspector wonders: ‘Will non-English speaking passengers even realise that it is the pre-flight safety demonstration?

The inspector staunchly defends the traditional safety briefing. ‘Positioning cabin crew throughout the cabin always was, and always will be, a sound practice for ensuring passengers are more aware of the role of cabin crew. The visibility of our safety professionals during this phase is an essential message.’

Dr Brett Molesworth, who has carried out research into cabin safety briefings at the University of NSW, says little is known on the subject.

‘I can only find limited research examining the effectiveness of safety briefings (not safety cards, as there is considerable research in this area) in terms of recall and memory of information. However, while this is an important question, it only addresses part of the problem. ‘Obtaining passengers’ attention to safety briefings is difficult, but if you don’t have their attention, recall of content will be non-existent’, he says.

Molesworth cautions that humour may not be the best way of sharing the safety message.

‘In one study I conducted examining recall of information from three different safety briefings, participants recalled only about 50 per cent of the safety messages in what would be termed “the best briefing”. As you would expect, recall performance decreased with the passage of time. In fact, two hours after the video, participants could recall (on average) five per cent less information than immediately after the video.

This study was conducted with university students who were told that they would be tested on recall of content following the briefing. One of the three (unidentified) safety briefings used humour and was very entertaining, but it appeared that the humour detracted from learning and recall. This effect is not new as laughter is said to limit the amount of information individuals can attend to and absorb (attention narrowing).

‘Humour seems to have the most benefit in attracting passengers who would otherwise not have attended to the safety briefing in the first place. I have a student currently conducting research in this area and hope to have those results later this year. Other students of mine have speculated whether a less upbeat approach (à la the Grim Reaper) would be beneficial.

‘All discussions around safety briefings are great. There is very little evidence from a safety perspective (as opposed to a marketing perspective) to validate the range and styles of presentations presently out there.’

Briefing cards

As in medicine, first aid and many other fields, techniques and recommendations change, and verbal safety briefings and briefing cards need to reflect updated information accurately.

Early briefing cards showed passengers holding their necks/back of their heads when leaning forward in the brace position. This practice is unsafe for two reasons:

  • In the event of major impact the arms could be released from this position, start flailing around and cause damage to other passengers, or to the arms of the bracing passenger.
  • During impact, the extra weight or pressure applied to the arms, or increased G-forces could cause damage to the passenger’s head or neck.

An experienced cabin safety trainer who is leading a project to redesign his organisation’s safety cards has this to say about them: ‘The best ones obviously use clear and unambiguous images, but few written instructions. I think this is very clever and wise because you do not need to understand English to understand the safety features of the aircraft. A picture definitely does say a thousand words.’

Another cabin safety officer adds. ‘The topic of non-English-speaking passengers is interesting. How many of us have travelled with an overseas airline and been briefed in their local language, possibly followed by English? Is it unreasonable to suggest that verbal briefings (and safety cards) should include a number of languages, but where do you draw the line?’

Then there are unintended consequences. Emphasising sex and sensuality in the safety briefing may create (or more likely, worsen) other problems. A study by the Equal Opportunities Commission earlier this year found that 27 per cent of Hong Kong flight attendants had been sexually harassed on flights in the past 12 months. Eighty-six per cent of the 392 participants who said they were sexually harassed were female. Harassment allegations involved ‘patting, touching, kissing or pinching, staring in a sexual way’ or ‘sexual jokes and requests for sexual favours’.

The well-informed traveller: why briefings matter

Many weary fliers must feel sympathy with British TV host Jeremy Clarkson’s comment: ‘Give me a drink and leave me alone: I’ll take my chances’. But this attitude ignores two important facts: Knowing what to do in an incident dramatically increases your chance of evacuating safely, and not knowing can make you an impediment to other passengers. An uninformed, panicking Clarkson, for example, would be a serious obstacle to safe evacuation.

A US Federal Aviation Administration study concluded:

An alert, knowledgeable person has a much better chance of surviving any life- or injury-threatening situation that could occur during passenger-carrying operations in civil aviation.

CASA’s civil aviation advisory publication: CAAP 253-2(0) says:

Individual passengers have a large, (typically negative) impact on the conduct of emergency evacuations, resulting from their general naiveté regarding aircraft emergencies and ignorance of proper procedures needed to cope with such circumstances.

Research and accident studies show that passengers who receive an individual briefing perform better during actual evacuations, are better prepared to operate exits, and are more likely to read the safety card.

Further reading

Employing humour in pre-flight safety briefings

Computer-based evacuation aids for aircraft passengers

Learning cabin safety through play: using video game technology in passengers’ education

Improving the effectiveness of aircraft cabin safety briefings – Transport Canada

Cabin safety and emergency evacuation: passenger experience of flight CI-120 accident

Passengers say ‘yes’ to technology but mobile usage still low – SITA

Thai airlines’s sexy calendar too hot for the government


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