Menus Subscribe Search

Go Outside

airplane-safety

(Photo: wastes/Flickr)

Should You Watch That Pre-Flight Safety Demonstration?

• July 07, 2014 • 12:00 PM

(Photo: wastes/Flickr)

Nearly a third of all airplane deaths are preventable, but in the decisive moment most of us will freeze up.

Admit it, you don’t watch either. There you are, sitting in 28 J—middle seat, damn you TAM—from Sao Paolo to JFK, happily watching the beginning of Shadow Recruit, when Chris Pine’s face is suddenly replaced by some cheerful stock actress telling you about the exit row doors and the oxygen masks and whatever else you’ve already heard, and ignored, before. You reach down and check your phone, hoping there’s some signal from a stray tower in the skies. There isn’t, so you play Flappy Golf for a few minutes until Pine’s pained expression returns and you can get on with your B-level action movie and enjoy the rest of your flight in peace. The plane isn’t going to crash anyway. And if it does, you’re surely not going to survive (unless Denzel Washington is your pilot), in which case all the knowledge in the world won’t really help, right?

Well, not exactly.

Plane crashes are much safer than they used to be. Between 1962 and 1981, among crashes that had at least one fatality, 54 percent of the people on board died. Between 1982 and 2009, that percentage dropped to 39, a decrease credited to wider bodied planes that are safer and to Sully Sullenberger. Perhaps more to the point, 76 percent of people in crashes survive.

Perhaps better practice for a plane crash would be throwing yourself into some other panic-inducing scenario and seeing how you react. Try scuba-diving or going on Jeopardy!

If knowledge is power, even in the event of a water landing, airlines are spending huge amounts of money in an attempt to help you pay attention. And that’s perhaps not a surprise since a 2001 National Transportation Safety Board study reported that 69 percent of passengers failed to watch the entire video due to boredom and/or already knowing everything.

When done right, these things gain some amount of traction. Delta created a viral success based mostly, as far as I can tell, on the fact that the actress in question is pretty. Air New Zealand had a bunch of nude people giving instructions. (Nothing about avoiding seat belt chaffing, which seems like an oversight.) “It was overwhelming, with 99.9 percent of the reaction positive,” Steve Bayliss, the airline’s general manager of marketing, said, which is his job. “What it has done for the airline was quite amazing. It was really innovative and shows we are up to trying new things.”

Other carriers have followed suit. Digiday will let you vote on which safety video is best. Gizmodo just went ahead and told you.

But does any of this really matter? Some people think it does. “Up to 30 percent of the deaths in plane crashes are preventable if passengers know what to do, according to experts,” Ben Sherwood, author of The Survivors Club, told Freakonomics in 2009. “In other words, you can make a difference in saving your life in a plane crash (or virtually any situation).”

But also:

In fact, one of the most surprising things you’ll encounter in a disaster is inaction. Believe it or not, but most people do nothing. They’re bewildered. In a stupor, they wait for instructions. Experts say that 80 percent of us are likely to respond this way with so-called “behavioral inaction.” Only 10 percent act quickly and decisively. Fortunately, just 10 percent of us act dangerously or counterproductively.

This would suggest that it doesn’t matter how much you know or how prepared you are: Some people are going to freeze in a given situation and some will jump into action. Perhaps better practice for a plane crash would be throwing yourself into some other panic-inducing scenario and seeing how you react. Try scuba-diving or going on Jeopardy!

So yeah, watch the safety video or don’t. It’s probably not going to make much difference if the plane starts going down. Chris Pine turns out fine, by the way.

Noah Davis
Noah Davis is a writer living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @noahedavis.

More From Noah Davis

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 28 • 8:00 AM

Why Isn’t Obama More Popular?

It takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.


July 28 • 7:45 AM

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.


July 28 • 6:00 AM

Hams Without Ends and Cats Tied to Trees: How We Create Traditions With Dubious Origins

Does it really matter if the reason for why you give money to newlyweds is based on a skewed version of a story your parents once told you?


July 28 • 4:00 AM

A Belief in ‘Oneness’ Is Equated With Pro-Environment Behavior

New research finds a link between concern for the environment and belief in the concept of universal interconnectedness.


July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


July 24 • 6:00 AM

Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream

With painted Volkswagen buses, talk of “free love,” and other reminders of the Woodstock era replaced by advertising and corporate sponsorships, hippie culture may be dying, but a new subculture—a sort of purgatory between hipster and hippie—is on the rise.


July 24 • 5:00 AM

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.