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Is There a Tech Solution to the Airline Preflight Safety Briefing?

Or, really, anything that can make us pay better attention to it?

Imagine you’re on an airplane that’s crash-landing — right now, as we speak. What details can you remember from those preflight airline safety briefings? Stop. Think. Your life depends on it.


You’re not alone. Generally, we suck at remembering the most basic information that could save our lives.

A recent study published in The International Journal of Aerospace Psychologyfound that no matter how preflight safety instructions are delivered, passengers do an “alarmingly” bad job of recalling the info. These results came true in a frightening display of ignorance during Southwest Flight 1380, in which people incorrectly donned their oxygen masks in the middle of an emergency landing. Whoops!

And so, a recent trend in the airline industry is to constantly up the entertainment ante on pre-flight safety videos and demonstrations in an effort to make them more memorable. British Airlines, for example, opts for star-studded videos, while Turkish Airlines features Lego Movie characters.

But this effort may be backfiring. Brett Molesworth, author of the study and a professor at the University of New South Wales, argues that the current state of pre-flight safety videos is dire. Yes, they’re grabbing passengers’ attention, but it’s a “double-edged sword,” he says.

“While they may assist in attracting attention to the video, the way that they are designed often hinders recall of key safety information,” Molesworth argues. “To help explain, one needs to understand how individuals process information: Like a computer, we only have a finite amount of cognitive resources to detect, and process information. If these cognitive resources are working at their maximum, that information is either ignored or replaced with what’s perceived to be more important information.”

He continues: “What has been shown is that humor consumes most of an individual’s cognitive resources, and hence, they’re unable to process any new information. Therefore, it’s important to carefully design safety videos that separate the key safety message from the humor. However, this doesn’t appear to be the case with most safety videos at present.”

Simply put, hilarious pre-flight safety videos are great for turning heads, but they’re so entertaining that people are focusing on the novelty rather than the information — which is the whole reason the video exists in the first place.

So what could airlines do instead? We talked to a few experts in the tech space who think they have a solution.

Solution #1: Gamify the Safety Instructions

“There’s a war going on for our attention,” says Matt Baer, CEO and founder of KeyoCoin, the “Universal Travel Rewards Platform.” “Every second of every day, our eyeballs and our ears are being monetized by marketers, and it’s become harder than ever to cut through the noise with the messages that matter.”

But incentivizing people with rewards “can go a long way to influence consumer behaviors,” Baer argues. He points to studies suggesting that reward-based motivation “promotes memory formation via dopamine release in the hippocampus prior to learning.”

So why not quizzes that reward passengers for doing well? Having some stakes in learning the safety information might get people to at least pay some attention. “It would be interesting to see what would happen to recall levels if passengers were promised rewards or loyalty points for scoring 100 percent on a spot quiz during the flight,” he says. “Something like that could easily be run on an in-flight entertainment system or within an integrated app.”

Solution 2: Virtual Reality

Rachel Lanham, general manager of WunderVu, a virtual reality production company, says: Why not VR?

“VR headsets are often referred to as memory machines,” she says. “Instead of simply conveying information, VR allows viewers to experience scenarios firsthand.” Lanham argues that studies have “repeatedly proven that training people in VR drives significant improvements in the acquisition and retention of knowledge.”

“Airlines are in a unique situation where they want to prepare their passengers, but don’t want to alarm or panic them. Immersing them in a real-world scenario where emergency procedures are required is risky if not done right. That said, by using VR to give passengers the memory of being in the situation before, they’ll be much more likely to remain calm and be able to do the right thing.”

What Will Actually Work?

I run these tech solutions by Molesworth. He says he’s not sold on VR or a rewards system quite yet. “Both offer promise,” he says. “However, I haven’t seen any research, nor have my team and I conducted any research to examine their effect. This is important to validate any claims, and I suspect the answer to this question isn’t as straightforward as they would like.”

Ultimately, Molesworth argues it’s “a shared responsibility” between the airlines and the passengers to remember life-preserving information for themselves.

On the airlines’ part, they “need to create an environment that’s conducive to learning and present the required information in a format that’s digestible.” Moreover, they need to “actively involve individuals cognitively in the briefing,” which means engaging them beyond a video or demonstration. “For example,” he says, “cognitive involvement can be simply operating the seat belt and learning which style of belt the aircraft has or counting the seats to the emergency exit while planning an escape route.”

However, he adds that because airlines now see these videos as a marketing opportunity, it might be up to governing bodies to regulate that briefings are “outcome-focused.” In other words, instead of requiring airlines to merely provide the information, they’d be required to prove passengers’ ability to “demonstrate an understanding of key safety information.”

Still, it’s not the airlines’ job to proverbially wrap the medicine in bacon so our collective ignorance doesn’t doom us all during an emergency; passengers have a role to play, too. “Passengers need to be motivated to learn and pay attention,” he says.

Baer agrees: “Airline safety briefings are the perfect example of time when you need everyone to stop, listen and remember before going back to your log-in attempts to the inflight Wi-Fi.”