'Moses' parts the passengers to keep the aisle clear in Delta's latest pre-flight safety briefing.
Photo: Delta Air Lines
Photo: Delta Air Lines

Funny flight videos might keep us alive. Or not.

How did learning how to buckle our airplane seat belt become such a madcap affair?

If you fly, you know some airlines are trying to make us laugh as we watch passenger safety videos about what to do if our plane goes down at sea or how to find an emergency exit while scrambling in the dark.

Who doesn’t want to be entertained by someone in a squirrel costume putting a giant nut in an overhead bin, as Delta Air Lines gave us in its latest video launched last week? It turns out, this is also very entertaining for airlines, which are capitalizing a little on a fresh way to employ brand marketing.

Did I say little? Wrong word.

Those safety videos have become as important a branding tool as Delta’s TV ad campaigns, says Mauricio Parise, the airline’s marketing communications chief. That four or five minutes of video time with the carrier’s 175 million annual passengers “is an amazing opportunity,” he told me. “We always want to use the captive audience to tell a story.”

Just one issue: We’re still a little fuzzy on whether the funny stuff makes it any more likely we’ll remember what to do in an emergency.

There’s absolutely no doubt more people are watching the updated videos, including on YouTube, where nobody is forced to watch. Some of the most attention has gone to airlines such as Atlanta’s own Delta, Virgin America and Air New Zealand. But lots of others are in on it. Some over the top, like one earlier this year from Delta featuring a parade of Internet memes like keyboard cat, dancing baby and “Charlie bit my finger.” Others don’t come off as wacky, like one on Icelandair where a couple is shown jumping off one of Iceland’s scenic waterfall to depict how passengers would use a plane’s emergency slide.

Fear factor

Frustrated safety regulators warned for years that passengers weren’t watching traditional safety briefings. While the chances of dying in a catastrophic plane crash are fantastically slight, emergency evacuations aren’t as rare as you might think.

The problem is traditional videos are boring, repetitive and focused on things most travelers should already know (how to buckle a seat belt?). And the material is studiously delivered in a way not to alarm us. So regulators worried passengers didn’t actually know as much as they thought they did about what to do when trouble happens.

Then came airlines like Southwest that encouraged flight attendants to add some levity to otherwise bone-dry safety material.

Delta’s first wild moment I noticed involved nothing more than a finger waggle by an attractive flight attendant warning passengers not to smoke. The video went viral, and the flight attendant got a nickname “Deltalina.” (Delta’s videos use real Delta employees to portray, well, employees.)

Other airlines have used kids, Lord of the Rings themes and employees in nothing but body paint to deliver safety messages. Most rely on sight gags and don’t mess with the safety script.

Parise says safety concerns have driven the push Delta began in 2012 to liven up its briefing videos.

Early on there was debate within Delta about whether having fun with the safety briefings was a good idea, he said. “There was a lot of debate. Will customers like this? Will they take it seriously? Will it be perceived as a marketing stunt?”

Ultimately, executives green-lighted the project, which now includes plans to roll out a new video every three or four months. There are limits to what Delta will do, though, Parise said. For example, they won’t make fun of Delta employees. And whatever they do has to be funny not only at Hartsfield-Jackson but also in Japan, Argentina and anywhere else Delta flies.

What about safety?

So I asked Parise whether Delta has any studies showing to show that people remember the safety tips any better with the new videos. He considers it a big step in the right direction that flight attendants say more passengers are actually watching the videos now. But he said government safety regulators are the ones to ask about effectiveness.

My hunt began. I called the National Transportation Safety Board. They haven’t researched it, but folks there have been pushing the Federal Aviation Administration to do so.

The FAA told me the effectiveness of safety videos is something the airlines and an industry group might know. But the airlines sent me to the FAA. Ultimately, the FAA said it hasn’t done such research. But it said it plans to do so.

When?

“… in the future.”

Eventually, I ended up talking to a researcher in Australia (see how far I go to get you the good stuff?) who has beaten the FAA to the punch.

Brett Molesworth focuses on aviation safety at the University of New South Wales. He showed different safety videos to 61 college students. They recalled safety information more after watching videos using humor or celebrity appearances, he found.

But even in the best cases, participants remembered no more than an average of 50 percent of the videos’ key safety messages.

Humor, Molesworth told me, “is cognitively taxing.”

Essentially, passengers only have so much brainpower to allot. When subconsciously weighing whether to concentrate on the funny stuff or safety tips that maybe, sort of, someday might help save their lives, which one do you think they pick? Chuckles win.

Maybe there’s a better way coming. Molesworth suggests cutting out stuff that most travelers already know. Instead, he’d focus solely on these points: how to put on a life vest, how to brace for a crash and how to count seats to the closest exit so you are prepared to find it in the dark.

Meanwhile, Luca Chittaro, a professor of human-computer interaction at the University of Udine in Italy, has been studying the use of digital safety game apps to teach passengers. The games could be played through the plane’s in-flight entertainment system.

But some of the games, such as ones titled “Emergency Water Landing” and “Learn to Brace,” would be better suited to play on the ground because they would show in “realistic and vivid ways the negative consequences of making mistakes in an emergency,” Chittaro wrote me. “Many passengers would clearly find it scary to play such realistic accident simulations while they are on a real plane.”

Ughh. Can’t we just watch the funny videos again?

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