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The safety demo: Theater of the absurd?

Every traveler has heard the famed airline safety demonstration. While it's important to keep safety in mind, it's OK to enjoy the humorous aspect of the presentation, too, columnist and flight attendant James Wysong writes.
Every traveler has heard the famed airline safety demonstration. While it's important to keep safety in mind, it's OK to enjoy the humorous aspect of the presentation, too, columnist and flight attendant James Wysong writes.Getty Images stock
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Ah, the safety demo — the announcement at the start of every flight that tells us what to do in case of a midair emergency. The words and props are familiar to every air traveler, but when was the last time you paid close attention? As a flight attendant, I can tell you the safety demo has some odd moments. The script is strange and the props are peculiar. While I am not underplaying the importance of the safety briefing, I suggest we take a humorous look at some of the quirkier features of the message and its delivery.

Delivery. There are several different approaches to the safety announcement. Some airlines jazz it up with celebrity impersonations, and others turn it into a comedy routine. Given a choice, most flight attendants will go for the no-nonsense delivery, but sometimes a flight attendant will give a more dramatic reading or even embellish the script to get passengers’ attention. For example:

The cutesy approach. There may be 50 ways to leave your lover but there are only eight ways to leave this airplane, so please listen as we explain the safety features. Funny at first, but then I start to wonder: Will this flight attendant still be making jokes as we crash-land?

The scare-you approach. We will be traveling in this cylindrical tube full of flammable liquid five miles in the air and at over 500 miles per hour, so listen up. OK, now I am too busy worrying about my last will and testament to listen to the safety procedures. I say, just stick to the script.

Safety cards. In the seat-back pocket is a safety card that says this: If you are unable to read these instructions, please notify a flight attendant. So, let me get this straight. If you can’t read the card, you should tell me? But if you can’t read the card, how would you know to tell me? Oh yeah, from reading the safety card!

Stowage instructions. Detachable wheels, also known as wheelies, should go under the seat in front of you and not in the overhead bin. Does anyone use these detachable wheelies anymore? I haven’t seen a pair in years.

The seat belt. If you have ever been in an automobile in your life you should know how to use a seat belt. But on every flight we demonstrate how to insert the metal buckle, how to pull the loose end to tighten the strap, and then how to release the buckle. What if we just ask you to please fasten your seat belt and then offer you help if you need it? After saying all this, I must admit I once did have a passenger tie his seat belt in a bow.

High-tech warnings. Any electronic device using cellular technology should remain off for the duration of the flight. How do the flight attendants know if the transmit function has been turned on? Simple. We don’t.

Emergency-row exits. Before your flight leaves, a flight attendant gives a separate briefing to the passengers sitting in the exit rows, informing them of their responsibilities and assessing whether they are physically capable of opening the door or window exit in an emergency. So far, so good.

But have you ever taken a hard look at the people sitting in these seats? I have had 80-year-old ladies accept the assignment, not to mention people so huge they would never fit through a window exit, as well as passengers who can barely speak English. But flight attendants can’t discriminate, so these folks can serve as your emergency helpers if they want to. They just have to be over a certain age, not handicapped and able to say “Yes” at the end of my little talk.

Water landing. In the unlikely event of a water landing ... A “water landing”? Don’t you mean a “crash”?

Flotation. Your seat cushion can be used for flotation purposes. Really? You mean that uncomfortable, fart-infested cushion that hasn’t been washed in years could actually save my life? Who would have thought?

Life vests. In an emergency, inflate only one chamber of the vest upon leaving the aircraft. Real-life studies show that nine out of 10 passengers suffer from premature inflation, so don’t worry if it happens to you. It’s very common.

Slides. Make sure you jump into the slide with your legs in front of you. Why in the world would you jump into anything with your legs behind you?

The oxygen mask. In the event that it becomes necessary, oxygen masks will drop from the compartment above your seat. Be seated immediately, put on the nearest mask and breathe normally. Well, if that mask drops, here’s what I’m thinking: I am five miles up in the sky and something is really wrong. “Breathing normally” probably isn’t in the cards, but soiling myself might be.

Final safety check. The flight attendants are now performing their final safety checks. If you have any questions about safety or security before we take off, feel free to ask them at this time. Next time you hear this, be sure to ask this question and watch the flight attendant squirm: “The announcement says the bag on the oxygen mask does not inflate but oxygen is flowing to the mask, so why doesn’t the bag inflate?” It got me the first time I was asked.

The sign-off. Thank you for your attention. Well, the problem I have with this remark is that I am thanking people for something they have no control over. And if they weren’t paying attention they wouldn’t hear me say it, anyway.

In fact, many people ignore the safety demo, and some just pretend to pay attention. Only a few people listen intently. To those smart people, I really do say thank you. To those know-it-alls who decide to talk loudly during the safety demonstration, I have something different to say: Put a cork in it. People are entitled to hear the emergency information. It can, in fact, save your life.

So next time you get the safety demo, think of me and smile. And let me know if you have anything to add.

James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, please visit or .