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Ignoring Simple But Critical Instructions

I fly quite a bit, so it is not surprising that I don’t usually pay close attention to the preflight safety briefing presented by flight attendants or on a video monitor. I have literally heard it hundreds of times before.

But when I sit in an exit row – and I often do – I always take a few minutes before we push back to review the safety card in that seat pocket in front of me. I take note of the aircraft model, and I look at the emergency door while mentally running through the procedure for opening it. I pay attention to whoever is in the exit row with me, too. Do they seem physically capable, and at least minimally interested, in helping to facilitate a quick and safe exit in the event of an emergency? Are they at least attentive enough to push their carry-ons under the seat in front of us to ensure that the exit is not blocked? On over-water flights in particular, I take note of whether my exit has a slide or life raft attached; if it doesn’t, I will sometimes ask a crew member where any onboard rafts are stowed.

It’s not just that I try to be a good citizen about my exit-row responsibilities. A few years back I watched a uniformed airline pilot go through the same mental exercise as he sat across the aisle from me. I told myself that if he, with all his expertise and experience, was willing to take the trouble to make sure he was mentally fresh and ready for any contingency, so should I. And I have done so ever since.

The sad reality is that most people don’t want to prepare for an emergency until it is too late to prepare. They may hear instructions such as how to don an oxygen mask countless times, but when called upon to act, too many of them don’t remember what to do or panic in the stress of the moment and do the wrong thing.

A recent Wall Street Journal article described how the recent Southwest Airlines accident shed light on the ongoing struggle to ensure passenger compliance with safety instructions. On Southwest Flight 1380, a catastrophic engine failure broke a cabin window at more than 30,000 feet. Images from the disaster show, and passengers confirm, that many of the people on board failed to cover both their noses and mouths with deployed oxygen masks as they were told to do in their preflight briefing.

As my colleague Ben Sullivan discovered through an online video, speed is essential when using an oxygen mask in a depressurized cabin. Flight attendants on the ill-fated flight, who had donned portable breathing apparatuses, attempted to help the passengers who were having trouble with their masks in the chaos.

Marty Martinez, a passenger, told the Journal, “That 30-second demo of how to put the mask on properly is such an insignificant portion of most of our lives.” He added, “Having to use the oxygen mask for the first time amid all that chaos and the turbulence and fact that there was huge hole out the side of the window made it very difficult.”

While this is surely a fair observation, it is hard to imagine what airlines can do to ensure passengers pay closer attention to provided safety cards, announcements from staff or video instructions at the beginning of every flight. Some have tried celebrity endorsements, high production values or catchy music. But it is routine to see people ignore these instructions all the same.

Some of the failure to pay attention or to follow directions once an emergency does arise is simple human failing. Most people aren’t cut out to be pilots; a lot of them are not really cut out to fly in an emergency row. Or maybe to fly at all, at least on a commercial airliner where their failings can put innocent bystanders in jeopardy. American Airlines told the National Transportation Safety Board in a letter following an emergency landing at O’Hare International Airport, “As consistently seen elsewhere during evacuations, our crew was forced to confront a visible minority of passengers who ignored instructions to leave luggage behind.” Passengers who refuse to abandon their carry-ons, despite crew instructions, put themselves and others in harm’s way.

On the other hand, on every flight there seems to be a subset of passengers who are ready to act selflessly for the benefit of others. Some passengers on the Southwest flight rushed to assist the passenger who was injured and sucked partly outside the cabin. While the woman later died, her fellow travelers still did their best to help. There have been many other instances as well in which passengers assisted crew members or even confronted hijackers and terrorists, such as the courageous passengers of United Flight 93 on 9/11 or Dutch filmmaker Jasper Schuringa, who along with his fellow passengers thwarted an attempted bombing on Northwest Flight 253 in 2009.

The majority of passengers are neither heroes nor rule-ignorers. There are surely just a handful of each on every flight. But while heroes go unknown unless extraordinary circumstances call upon them to act, those ready to ignore airline instructions are much easier to spot.

Sometimes on a flight to or from South Florida, I watch as many as a dozen people award themselves early boarding because they have disabilities and cannot get down the jet bridge without extra time or assistance. In a rapid evacuation, on an aircraft with just two or three people in the cabin crew, exactly who is supposed to help these people get off the plane? And do they offer that help before or after everyone else has exited? Fortunately, I have observed that while many people need extra time to board the plane, there must be something restorative about flying in a pressurized cabin. When we land, a surprising number of these same passengers leap out of their seats and charge out the newly opened cabin doors like stampeding wildebeest.

Then there are the people who just don’t care enough to follow instructions. They are the ones who stand up in the aisle, or even march to another row to visit a companion or retrieve an overhead bag, when the plane pauses on a taxiway before arriving at the gate.

I sympathize with airline executives and government safety officials as they try to come up with solutions to such problems. There may not be any that are commercially viable. If airlines had to administer aptitude tests or develop psychological profiles to weed out customers who can’t follow directions before letting them board, there might not be enough passengers left to sustain the business model. If you doubt this, just look at the next crowd of people who swarm the boarding area long before their assigned group is ready to board. Agents and frequent fliers have a term for them: “gate lice.”

Most of the time these clueless boobs only make flying a little more annoying than it needs to be. On occasion, though, they can make it more dangerous for themselves and people around them. I wish the airlines luck in their endless struggle against human nature.

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