Pre-flight safety announcements and the value thereof

Just recently I had the pleasure to fly from Wellington to Christchurch and back, down on a jet and back on a propeller plane, both ways on Air New Zealand. Some remarkable differences:

  • On the jet flight my carry-on bag and me were both x-rayed, and the safety announcements take more than three minutes. You can see the video here (which is excellent for an airline safety video, but still). For any of you who are aficionados of Air New Zealand’s safety videos, it was the All Blacks one.
  • On the propeller plane, there was no search of me or my baggage at all, and – although it covered the same material – the safety announcement took less than thirty seconds. No All Blacks in sight.

And in neither case did anyone check my ID.

Which made me wonder about the legal basis and practical purpose of all this search and safety activity. Turns out this is quite a big topic, so best eaten in small bites.

It’s the law, kemosabe

In this first post, the law on safety announcements. Under section 28 of the Civil Aviation Act 1990, the Minister has the power to make rules about many things. Duly authorised, Ministers have made quite a lot of rules over time.

Amongst them is the foundation of what you get told every time you get on an commercial airplane. Under Part 91, Subsection C, Rule 91.211 the pilot of the plane needs to be sure that, unless they already know it all, “each passenger” has been briefed on:

  • How and when to do up his/her seatbelt
  • The rules on smoking
  • Folding away his/her tray-table
  • Where exits are and how to open them
  • How to use the oxygen system (required for flights over 10,000 feet) and flotation equipment (required for flights over water)
  • Emergency landing procedures, and
  • The use of portable electronic devices.

The briefing has to include a lifejacket and oxygen mask demonstration (if these systems are required), and must instruct passengers that they are legally required to do as they are told by lighted signs and crew instructions. The plane operator is also required (Rule 91.213) to ensure that baggage is stowed under the seat in front of you, or in any overhead locker.

I understand that these rules are required by international law set by the International Civil Aviation Organisation, part of the UN. Only that could really explain why the passenger safety briefings seem to be so similar all over the world. Compare the NZ rules above with the seemingly identical US requirements.

Questioning authority

So there you are. It still leaves the question of why the briefing is so long on my jet flight, and short on the propeller plane. And I would be very interested to know whether passengers actually pay attention to any of this (they don’t seem to – in fact, it seems there is coolness is taking an attitude of studied indifference when the safety briefing is going on), whether passengers actually recall all the different things that they are told, and whether having a long safety video or a short safety announcement makes a difference.

These guys (and read the comments at the bottom too to see what your fellow passengers are going to be doing) reckon the most important things are having a plan to get out, moving quickly after the plane stops, and keeping calm. Seat position matters a little bit, depending on the type of crash. The same story here, and reassuringly, many injuries in plane emergencies are actually caused while using the escape slides rather than anything to do with the plane crashing.

Which raises the question of why they tell you all the other stuff in the safety announcement. And why it is all done in such a reassuring tone. Would it be more effective to have a statement from someone who has actually survived air crashes facing the camera and explaining the three things you should do right now to increase your chances of living?

From the other point of view, we could also ask why we have the safety announcements at all (compare the lack of announcements in trains, buses, when crossing the street or when you buy a bicycle with what happens each time you get on a plane, for example).

Stay alert

The American authorities say:

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.

Which is helpful to know, but hardly determinative. Presumably an alert, knowledgeable person has a better chance of surviving many situations, but that does not mean we put safety notices everywhere or run public advertising advising people what to do (with the notable exceptions, of course, of smokingdangerous driving and to some extent, exercise).

Perhaps we are subjecting ourselves ninety thousand times a day (my lazyweb estimate of the total number of flights) to a set of messages that don’t really make much difference.

We might point out that:

  • Plane travel is extremely safe. According to the genius of Wikipedia, that bolt-hole for all bloggers, it is more dangerous to motorcycle, or to bicycle, or to walk than to travel by plane. Per kilometre travelled, buses and trains are about 10 times more dangerous than planes, walking is about a thousand times more dangerous, and motorcycles are more than 2,000 times more dangerous than planes (although note the comment about the applicability of the statistic). It is estimated that twenty four thousand people each year die from being struck by lightning – compared with 757 in 2009 while flying.
  • It also seems to be getting safer, with fewer fatalities over time despite, presumably, continally growing traffic.
  • Plane crashes actually seem to be surprisingly survivable. The Telegraph article referred to above reports that:

A US government study found there were 568 plane crashes in the US between 1993 and 2000, involving a total of 53,487 passengers and crew. Of these, 51,207 – or over 90 per cent survived. Even on the 26 crashes deemed the worst, the study found that more than half the passengers and crew survived.

This safety and high level of survivability could of course be because of the ubiquitous, effective safety announcements. Who can say. Perhaps we humans need to run a few airlines with no safety announcements for a few billion kilometres and see if it makes a difference. I would be happy to fly on such a plane – we could let passengers choose in advance whether they want to have an announcement or not.

Technophobia, perhaps

I wonder if what we are really seeing here is just a luddite-level cultural hangover from the days when flying was novel, dangerous and unusual. So the safety announcements haven’t quite caught up with the fact that flying is now old-hat, safe and embarked upon by millions of people very single day without any significant thought or negative consequence.

Only techno-phobia in our technological age can explain, I think, the ban on using cellphones during flight. I am deeply sceptical that phones crash planes for two reasons:

  • One, if phones were actually dangerous, airlines would do a whole lot more than just invite their passengers to turn phones off. They would confiscate them for the duration of the flight, search all passengers to ensure they were not being carried, and encourage passengers to dob each other in if they saw anyone with an operating device. Compare the treatment of firearms with that of iPhones.
  • Two, and relatedly, we just haven’t seen a massive increase in plane crashes as mobile phones have become ubiquitous. If there is a problem with mobile phone interference, it isn’t showing up.

Of course, this is all terribly logical reasoning on my part. So is the other side of the equation: the consequences of a plane crash are horrendous, and no one really needs to use a phone on board a plane anyway, so asking people not to seems like good risk/reward calculus.

I note, that from Civil Aviation Authority Rule 91.7, the ban on the use of portable electronic devices does not apply to pacemakers or electric shavers. You can’t use your cellphone. So strike a blow for freedom and shave while flying, people!

PS Amongst other random things I learned in writing this, planes are specifically required to carry first-aid kits and fire-extinguishers (Rule 91.523(a)), an axe (91.523(b)) and portable battery-powered megaphones (91.523(c)). And for flights that go over 30,000 feet (all international flights to/from New Zealand and many domestic ones), airplanes are required to have at least 10% more oxygen masks than passengers.


3 thoughts on “Pre-flight safety announcements and the value thereof

  1. Pingback: Free to roam | whereishayden

  2. Nice work, Hayden! You appear to be describing what some of us call “Security Theatre” ( Also, you might enjoy these from (a kindred spirit, it would seem) Bruce Schneier: and – if you’re not familiar with him or his work, Schneier is a bit of a legend: :)

Comments are closed.