Gongol.com Archives: June 2023
Actual emergency evacuations of aircraft are about as rare as events can be. But the emergency landing of a passenger jet without landing gear at Charlotte is a reminder that "rare" isn't the same as "impossible". Generally speaking, things have gone smoothly enough in most of the airliner evacuations in recent American memory. ■ But they often could have gone better. In its report on the event we call the "Miracle on the Hudson", the NTSB noted that the evacuation was hampered by the general safety complacency of the passengers, the overwhelming majority of whom paid no attention at all to the safety briefing. ■ The preflight safety briefing is a social contract without much hold: Flight attendants are obligated to deliver training to a generally disinterested and unwilling audience. They cannot possibly like being ignored, yet experienced passengers can't really be blamed for not devoting their complete attention to a presentation that is always the same, and not particularly informative at that. ■ The curse of the content is that it is almost insultingly obvious in the first place, entirely by design. It shouldn't be hard to fasten a seat belt, or to figure out how to open a door in an emergency; these things should be obvious even to people in the lowest strata of IQ. But there are people who need to receive the briefing as it is, and more significantly, it would be good for passenger safety more generally if the briefings included something other than boilerplate content. Familiarity may breed contempt, but it can also breed boredom. ■ Educational psychology tells us rather plainly that effective safety briefings would contain three elements they almost never contain today: An attention-grabbing opening, a reward, and a connection to prior learning. While the need to capture attention is reasonably obvious, the other two are important tools in all sorts of low-stakes learning situations. ■ Humans are very good at paying attention and learning when the instructor tickles our sense of "What's in it for me?" Anytime we sense that learning something will make us smarter, better, faster, or stronger, it activates an entirely different level of awareness than what takes place when we're just members of a captive audience. A good safety briefing would include some promise of reward, like: "People who memorize the number of rows between themselves and the two closest emergency exits have been shown to evacuate X percent faster than passengers who do not" or "Memorizing how to open an exit door saved an average of X seconds in safety trials". (And if facts like these aren't known, someone should study them.) ■ The other missing aspect is the connection to prior learning. For almost nobody is the cabin safety briefing a first-time experience, and for real efficacy, it ought to be treated as a single episode in an ongoing seminar. People learn best when old knowledge can be connected to new material. It revives the old and facilitates the uptake of the new. If safety briefings don't seek to teach us anything new, then we should expect the exercise to be merely perfunctory. But if it's only perfunctory, then it doesn't really have value and is just a waste of time for everyone involved. It wouldn't be hard to develop a syllabus of "things air travelers ought to know", to be delivered on a rotating basis so that there's always something new and intriguing for passengers to take in. ■ We can and should do better than that. Commercial air travel is fantastically safe, but the Charlotte incident is a fresh reminder that we shouldn't take safety for granted. Instead of relying on a tired old regulation that requires a rote and uninspired recitation of things most people already know, safety briefings ought to be intellectually rewarding -- even stimulating.