If Passengers Can’t Find The Lifejackets, Don’t Blame Cell Phones

If this Atlantic article by Polly Mosendz is representative, the case against allowing passengers to use electronic devices during takeoff and landing is incredibly weak. I was particular bugged by this argument:

George Hobica, an air-travel expert, explained that the flight attendants make their strongest point when it comes to safety. “If you asked 100 fliers about the demo, where their life vest is, they wouldn’t know. When the plane landed in the Hudson, people left without their life vest—of all planes to leave without your life vest! It is bad enough when people are reading their newspapers, and it is rude for one thing, but it is also dangerous,” he said. Cell phones just make their jobs even harder.

Unless we’re prepared to ban books, newspapers, small talk, magazines, and getting lost in our imaginations, banning cell phones will not cause passengers to pay attention during the demo or remember where the life vests are.

What would solve the problem – or at least, reduce it – is better communication and design. Instead of depending on a demo that they know many or most passengers aren’t absorbing, the airlines should find another way to let us know where the lifevests are – for instance, by pasting a picture showing the vest location on the back of every seat, so that passengers will unavoidably look at it hundreds of times every flight.

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19 Responses to If Passengers Can’t Find The Lifejackets, Don’t Blame Cell Phones

  1. 1
    Mark J says:

    What idiot doesn’t know by now that the life jacket is located beneath the seat cushion underneath you? How many freakin’ movies and television shows has that been in? People that never fly know where the life jacket is and how to use it (blow into the tube if it doesn’t inflate!).

    If people left the Hudson landing plane without life vests, it wasn’t because they didn’t know where the life vests were, it is because they are, you know, people and they panicked. Nothing unusual about that. No amount of pre-flight lectures would solve that problem.

  2. 2
    Jake Squid says:

    What idiot doesn’t know by now that the life jacket is located beneath the seat cushion underneath you

    Who cares about the life jacket? It’s much quicker to use your seat cushion as a flotation device.

  3. 3
    Dreidel says:

    The “air-travel expert” who made the quoted statement must be relatively new to commercial flying. Those of us whose jobs have required us to be flying for the past 40 years know that the vast majority of passengers have NEVER paid much attention to the flight attendants’ safety briefings. This was as true in 1970 as it is today.

  4. 4
    SarahTheEntwife says:

    I wonder if there would be any way to put it actually *in* the seat back — that would make it much more accessible in an emergency as well as more obvious where it is. I have a hard enough time bending around to get things out from under the seat when I’m calm and luggage and plane bits aren’t falling on me because my plane has just crashed.

  5. 5
    RonF says:

    I once got a free drink on a Southwest flight from the stewardess flight attendant.

    “Thanks! What’s this for?”

    “You were the only person on the plane who was listening to me when I gave the pre-flight!”

  6. 6
    Rash92 says:

    I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic or american flights don’t actually have those laminated sheets with the emergency info written on them in all of the seat pockets in front of you that i’ve seen in every flight i’ve been in.

  7. 7
    brian says:

    What always bothers me when I fly is the number of idiots not listening to the emergency instructions between me and the emergency exit. I would cheerfully agree to not take off until everyone passed a written test on them. I want to be sure it is my heart condition that kills me, not a blown number 3 engine.

  8. 8
    Harlequin says:

    American flights do have those laminated cards, but (with the exception of kids too young to read) I’ve never seen anybody but me look at them, and I fly a fair amount for work.

    I want to be sure it is my heart condition that kills me, not a blown number 3 engine.

    Statistically speaking, crashes happen during takeoff and landing, not from engine problems in the air. (That’s why your stuff has to be stowed: not because it might fly around, but because the area near your feet needs to be clear in case evacuation is required.)

  9. 9
    Ampersand says:

    Putting a diagram indicating where the lifevest is – or, even better, the lifevest itself – on the back of the seat, where people can’t help but look at it dozens of times every flight, would be the most effective way of making sure the maximum number of passengers receive the information. Putting it on a card, or in a presentation, that is viewed at most once per flight, is ineffective communication.

    I’m not convinced this really is a problem, rather than a rationalization the airline workers union is reaching for because they’d rather passengers not be reading their phones during takeoff. But if it really is a problem, then there’s an effective solution available.

  10. 10
    Jake Squid says:

    In the event of a water landing, your seat cushion can serve as a flotation device.

    It may be that most passengers have heard the safety instructions so many times they can repeat it word for word while in a coma.

  11. 11
    Radfem says:

    I look at the diagram and listen every time. Each type of plane is different even some planes within types of planes for various reason including whether the planes also carry cargo pallets which is true of a lot of the heavies. It only takes a few minutes out of my life.

    The life raft’s location is one aspect of it. Another is when to inflate it, i.e. when you get outside of the plane and not while your inside it. The reality is that few water crashes or ditches are survivable especially outside of take offs and landings. The exceptions are if they’re in a river, i.e. the Hudson or close to shore, i.e. the Ethiopian hijacking which still led to a high loss of life, two-thirds of all on board. That plane ran out of fuel and some planes are built to glide some distance when their engines flame out.

    Hitting the water even when trying to ditch is like slamming into a concrete wall, then even if you get out there’s variables like water temp for example and how far you are from help, i.e. land, ships, etc. I flew the Brisbane-LAX route where 98% of it is over open ocean thousands of miles away from land. The life jackets were stashed under seats which is laughable because seriously even when it’s not a crisis, it’s extremely difficult to access them in economy at least. It’s hard enough just to get in and out of your seat or your row.

    if you know someone who’s been killed in a plane crash that helps shape your perspective a bit. Though in the couple cases where I knew people, both crashes were not survivable, i.e. AA flight 191 at Chicago O’Hara airport in 1979 which was due to maintenance negligence and the other was a PSA flight that was hijacked by an ex-employee of the airline out of revenge for being fired.

    I think the life jacket wasn’t the best example. The most important part of the emergency briefing is knowing where the exits are, being able to find the exit even when people are panicking, jamming the aisles, in the dark, when there might be thick lack smoke, and importantly not just keying in on a primary exit route but alternate ones as well. Unless you’re in those types of situations, it’s easy to overestimate how well you’ll evacuate from a plane after a crash or emergency landing after say, an onboard fire.

    I noticed that the larger newer jets are building more door exits and relying less on the window exits which were located on top of wings.

  12. 12
    brian says:

    In the event of a water landing your seat cushion can also be used as a toilet.

  13. 13
    Jake Squid says:

    Will be used, really. Which makes use as a flotation device possibly somewhat less pleasant depending on one’s inclinations.

    I wonder what percentage of deaths in airplane crashes is caused by ignorance of the emergency procedures. I’m guessing it’s miniscule, but I haven’t been able to locate any statistics.

  14. 14
    Radfem says:

    Plane crashes are so outside the norm of flights anyway so the number isn’t going to be that high. Then you have the crashes that aren’t survivable including mid-flight break up or decompression caused by terrorist bombs, missile strikes, rudder/stabilizer malfunctions, inflight fires, and mechanical failures as well as mid air collisions Another cases where survivable ones become unsurvivable ones b/c the pilots aren’t aware or trained to deal with the real problem. Also pilot murder/suicides which has been happened in some cases and disputed in others.

    Then you have survivable that become unsurvivable (loss of life up to total loss of life) b/c of panic and other issues with evacuating a plane. I think from what I’ve learned is that quite a few of these involve in flight fires on the ground or where the plane can be landed somewhere including the runaway and people just freeze or panic, don’t know what to do in a situation where seconds count b/c of flash fires once more oxygen is introduced as well as heavy dark smoke that makes it hard to see. Also people knowing where one exit is and that exit is blocked or not working. One example was the US Airs, West Air runway collision at LAX, according to interviews with passengers and crew who survived that flight.

  15. 15
    Harlequin says:

    Random data point about the safety cards: today I flew in a plane with pretty new seats; instead of the usual seat back pocket, it had one stretchy net pocket in the usual place, and then a pocket molded into the plastic chair back at eye level (just above the TV screen), with the safety cards and airline magazine in the eye-level pocket. This is the second time I’ve seen this style of chair back (and I fly, on average, one round trip a month), so it’s not common. Dunno if it made more people look at the safety cards or not.

  16. 16
    Ampersand says:

    I really like those new seats! Although I doubt they lead to many more people reading the cards.

    From what I can tell, probably the two most important pieces of information to convey are 1) where the nearest exit is, and 2) That if the plane needs to be deboarded, it’s essential to deboard FAST – like, within 90 seconds (which is how long a typical crashed plane cabin will take to catch fire, if it’s going to catch fire at all). Maybe add 3) – crash positions.

    There’s no reason that information can’t be printed on the back of each seat, customized on each row to indicate exactly where the nearest exit is. So if you’re seated three rows in front of the exit row, the sign on the back of your seat will show that information. That would be much more effective than the little cards.

    For some reason, the airlines never seem to convey 2). Maybe they’re afraid of causing a panic?

    I also wonder if requiring new airplanes to have more and larger exits would help. Apparently in some crashes with a lot of fatalities, some burned corpses will be found in line at the exit row – they did exactly what they were supposed to do and died waiting to be able to exit.

    OTOH, frankly, every dollar spent making airplanes safer might be better spent (in terms of saving a greater number of lives) on automobile safety.

  17. 17
    Radfem says:

    I agree w/ you Amp on the importance of knowing where the exits are. When I did a research project involving over 30 NTSB reports, I took a long haul flight and I wrote on my arm how many rows I was from two exits. The last time I flew which was last month, Brisbane to LAX and back, I just memorized it. B/c in the cases where fire and smoke are involved, you can’t see ahead of you and you’re supposed to rely on the lighting strips on the floor level.

    fires are huge. One of those cases of people in the aisle was a runway collision at LAX where issues with ATC led to two planes colliding, one a US Airways 737 with a Westair commuter jet. For the commuter jet, it was not a survivable accident. On US Airways, the pilot was killed by a beam from the building taht the jet hit after it collided w/ the commuter jet but more people should have survived. Many froze and stayed in seats. Others were in aisles esp close to an exit that couldn’t open and then an opening of one exit brought more Oxygen in the plane which caused what’s called a flash fire. Interviews of several survivors indicated high degrees of what’s called survivor guilt b/c they left the plane and were unable to help others who were stuck in the aisles. I had another example of an infight fire but can’t remember which airline but same outcome. Fire started in the bathroom. Of course other inflight fires like Swiss Air 111, ValuJet and the African airlines taking the Muslim pilgrims to Mecca were all in-survivable as was the last Air France Concorde flight. But the inflight fires that are survivable seem to provide the best examples of air crashes were panic and lack of ability to quickly evacuate the plane causes lives to be lost.

    My parents’ friend wasn’t in one of those situations. His flight COULD have been survivable only if the pilots knew that it wasn’t an engine flameout but that the engine physically left the airplane. Their reaction to what they thought was a flameout was spot on including with training. Only problem is since the engine took out all the hydraulic systems with it, what they did led to their destruction instead. That’s another serious issue is that some accidents are survivable after the fact when they’re played out in simulators rather than when it’s something that is being encountered on a real flight in real time.

    I have to say I’d admire pilots. When disembarking from a Qantas flight in Brisbane I caught a conversation between the captain and maintenance and so much had gone wrong with my flight, including low pressure in a fuel line field which can be serious. But the pilot dealt with it calmly and by the book and got the plane on the ground safely until maintenance could fix it. People also don’t understand that their pensions and paychecks have been cut too. We all know about the pilot who saved lives by ditching in the Hudson river. We don’t all know he testified in Congress after his pension and that of other pilots got cut 40%.

    Yet what that pilot did and the pilots who landed UA 232 and UA 811 did in dangerous conditions, you really can’t put a price tag on.

    I took a 747-400 long haul heavy which had narrower aisles than I’d ever seen in a dual aisle aircraft and less leg room in economy (not counting what’s called economy deluxe or plus class). I can’t even imagine an evacuation in those circumstances. Of course a trans-Pacific flight is mostly over remote ocean so survivability is minimal at best but still and that airline also used the double decker Aerobus models and was about to buy into the 787 Dreamliner. It boggles the mind whatever actions they take.

  18. 18
    Radfem says:

    I cringed at the flight attendants who wore nylons on Qantas. FAs who’ve worn nylons in plane crashes or landings with fire got third degree burns b/c nylon is petroleum and it superheats, melts and burns the skin.

  19. 19
    brian says:

    Ok, I am officially never flying again.