No announcements for seasoned flyers

On a recent trip on a plane equipped with personal inflight video screens for each seat, I decided to watch a movie quickly and then have a nap. So I started watching the movie right after settling into the seat, about 20 minutes before takeoff. I figured with that I would watch the 1:30 minute movie through the meal service and be ready for the nap about an hour into the flight. What I learned instead was a greater awareness of just how many announcements there are on a typical flight these days. That’s because the in-flight system paused the video with each announcement and put it through my noise cancelling headphones.

The many announcements included:

  • The routine ones about the process of takeoff. Door closing. Seatbelt sign on. Various blah-blah-blah
  • The huge array of safety announcements and instructions I’ve seen literally hundreds of times.
  • A very few useful announcements: Destination check, reasons for delay, updates on flight time.
  • Some possibly useful announcements (cell phones off now, OK to use electronics now.)
  • Ads: Join our frequent flyer program, get our frequent flyer card, shop from the duty free cart, buy meals, buy drinks (which did not even apply to those not in coach.)

The cacophony is getting worse, almost as bad as when you’re sitting in the terminal with the endless announcements. They know people hate that in the terminals and offer the paid lounge with no announcements, but I’ve said they should just use cell phones instead and give us peace. On Japanese Shinkansen, they also offer a “quiet car” with no announcements — it is up to you to set your own alarm to make sure you don’t miss your stop if you want to sleep or relax. The trains are so on-time you can do this.

How about doing something like this, at least on a modern airplane where you have a personal screen for each seat?

Step one is to identify the flyers who already know the drill. That’s any frequent flyer today, but if they really want, I am sure we would be glad to all take a test (online or in the airport some day when we have time) to confirm that we know the safety rules and procedures, and get a tag in our frequent flyer record saying this. We might have to update it from time to time, or take a quick web test if we’re flying a new airplane for the first time that has something different about it we need to know.

For those flyers who have not proven they know the safety rules, let/make them watch all the safety videos on their seat screen. They must put on the headphones and listen, and push a button on the touch-screen or control to start the video. If some uncertified flyer does not do this, light up their seat number on the FA’s screen. However, it should be hard for them to miss, as the screen will flash brightly and possibly even beep if it can to tell them they must watch the video. The video will explain how they can avoid watching it again. Of course, the nice thing is they will watch the video in their language, or a video aimed at their age, if they are in a certain range. Those with a child will get the bit about putting on their air mask first, those without don’t need to get that — it can be customized for all, and also for those in the exit row needing special instructions.

If for some reason somebody won’t touch the screen the FA can deal with it (we’ve freed up a lot of their time) or in a pinch, they can do the old fashioned safety talk.

Step two is to allow the option of getting other informational notices on the screen and headphones. For those watching a video, we need not interrupt them for most of these, they can scroll in a crawl on the bottom of the screen. For those not watching a video, the screen can come on and tell the announcement. Ideally each passenger has already set the screen to use their language and age level, if the computer didn’t know that already from the ticket purchase. Yes, people do switch seats, but they don’t switch into the seats of the trained travelers, and those passengers can be trained to de-configure their seat’s screen if they leave it. Besides, cars have had sensors to tell if a person is in a seat, or if the seat belt is fastened for decades, can’t planes figure this out?

When the crawl comes, it can shrink the screen, or perhaps just flash a little icon with the type of announcement, and let the person watching decide if and when to see the non-urgent ones. When the screen shows an announcement is available, they can have time to put on their headphones to listen to it, because the in-flight system can buffer it and play it for them at their convenience.

Some custom information can also be displayed on the screen, or even printed on your boarding pass. For example, the location of the nearest exits, including the reminder that yours is behind you, if it is. And any special rules for the particular plane or cabin.

Even if you don’t want to get as complex as this, with customer-based profiles, you could simply put up announcements on the screen and make the user press OK to get rid of them. I would much rather do that than listen to them. And for all but a very few announcements, I can read and clear them at my leisure. I would even rather do this with the spam about the frequent flyer credit card and the duty free, though it would be nice if the airlines resisted that. I can read and press far more quickly than I can listen. In theory we could even put some little vibrators into the armrest.

With seatbelt and weight sensors like in cars, we would know just who needs to get buzzed, beeped or flashed with a fasten-seat-belts reminder, and in fact if everybody is belted, they could do away with announcing it, and buzz or flash the passenger to remind them they undid the belt during this period, especially if they leave it unbelted, just like a car. This might also remind the pilot to turn off the sign if the turbulence is long past, which they forget to do.

There is some potential to get Orwellian here, of course. The airline could threaten to remove the “seasoned traveler” bit that gives peace to those they don’t like, or those who violate the rules in the briefing by standing up early etc. I don’t like this since a number of the rules, such as those against the electronic devices — particularly ebook readers — are stupid and should not be there in the first place. I hope these temptations could be kept to a minimum. I think passengers would find it surprising how different, and more peaceful and suitable for work or reading a flight without announcements is.

Talk to the FAA

It's not the airline that requires this, but the FAA; and, as with all government dealings, if it isn't compulsory then it's banned.

Can you cite the regulations?

I know that there are regulations to make sure people hear announcements, but is there a requirement that they announce everything every time, or just be sure that passengers are aware of the things announced?

Do you know the regulation numbers?

I don't know the reg number

The thing is, it's much easier (from a command-and-control perspective) to make the same announcement the same way every time. Otherwise you have to keep a list, going into each flight, of who said "already know" and who said "need a briefing"; you also have to deal with people who can't read English (or can't read at all.)

Although, as you point out in your Myth Of Security post, most of this is about engendering a feeling of safety in the passengers. Passengers who don't feel safe experience an increase in their stress levels, and passengers who are stressed don't want to fly on your planes.

Feeling of safety

Actually, a large number of the announcements have nothing to do with safety, though some do.

And the reason it is worthwhile to find the reg is that surprisingly, there are tons of things in daily life that people assume are in the regs, but actually aren’t. For example, FAA regulations do not prohibit electronic devices during takeoff and landing. Instead, they just forbid devices that might interfere with the plane, and devices can be certified not to do so by the airline. The in-flight entertainment system is so certified, for example.

The actual regulation about takeoff and landing is you can’t have something heavy that is not stowed, as it might go flying in a crash and hit somebody. Technically you probably can’t have a big heavy hardback book out.

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