Three Minutes Could Save Your Life

By Robert L. Sumwalt

Picture of Member Robert Sumwalt reviewing the passanger safety briefing card before a commercial flight.Think fast! You’re sitting on board an airline flight. In the event of a water landing, could the seat cushion you’re sitting on be used as a flotation device? The answer, surprisingly, is, it depends.

As a frequent air traveler and former airline pilot of 24 years, I always pick up the passenger safety information briefing card from the seatback pocket as soon as I buckle myself in for a flight. I suspect some may look at me a bit funny—after all, what kind of weirdo actually reads those things, anyway?

The truth is, when I was in college, I had to get out of a burning airplane—and rather quickly, at that! One thing I vividly remember is coming to the horrible realization that a burning airplane has the great potential to explode. Needless to say, that thought motivated me to get out

I jumped from my seat and headed to the over-wing emergency exit. However, in the heat of the moment (and I do mean heat), I couldn’t recall how to open the very thing that was separating me from life or death.

So, ever since then, whenever I ride on a plane, train, or bus, I make a habit of reviewing the potentially lifesaving information.

Where is the closest exit? Where is the alternate exit? How will I open it? If the oxygen mask drops, how will I activate the flow of oxygen? And, back to the original question: since about half of my takeoffs and landings are from an airport surrounded by water, what will I use for a flotation device?

While riding often on one major U.S. airline, I noticed that some passenger safety information briefing cards showed using the seat bottom cushion as a flotation device, but others did not—even though it was the same airline and the same type of aircraft.

Curious about the difference, I asked the airline’s safety officials. The answer, as it turns out, was quite surprising. Some newer seat cushions are thinner and aren’t designed to float, and therefore, can’t be used as flotation devices. Life vests are provided in those cases. The flight attendant safety briefing and passenger safety information briefing card contain the relevant information for that particular aircraft.

That’s precisely the point. No matter how experienced a traveler you may be, no matter how often you’ve ridden on a particular aircraft type, no matter how many frequent flier miles you have logged with a particular airline, things may have changed. And, can you be sure that, in the heat of the moment, you will act properly? That’s why I make it a point of reviewing these important procedures—even if it may raise some eyebrows from my seatmates.

In 2000, the NTSB conducted a safety study on the evacuation of commercial airplanes. The results weren’t surprising, but nevertheless, were disappointing. The study found that a majority of airline passengers watched less than 75% of preflight safety briefings, and 68% of them never bothered to read passenger safety information briefing cards.

The next time a flight attendant asks for your attention as your plane backs away from the gate, put down your magazine, remove your ear buds, and listen. And, look over the passenger briefing card. Those three minutes might just save your life.

Robert L. Sumwalt has been a Member of the NTSB since 2006. He is a frequent contributor to the blog.

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