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Should You Watch That Pre-Flight Safety Demonstration?

Nearly a third of all airplane deaths are preventable, but in the decisive moment most of us will freeze up.
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(Photo: wastes/Flickr)

(Photo: wastes/Flickr)

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.