British Airways announced and published their new in-flight passenger safety video:

I'd like to draw your attention to two pieces of instruction given in the video, but also stated in every passenger safety video I've ever seen on every airline I've flown:

  • Never inflate the life-vest inside the aircraft.
  • Always put on your own air-supply mask before assisting others.

These instructions are always given in a dogmatic or dictatorial, way - the airlines expect passengers to comply with these instructions despite never giving any the reason for these policies - and I'm concerned certain passengers would disregard the instructions because they think they know better (and I included myself in that category until I found out why these policies exist).

I understand the reasons, respectively, are:

  • While being inflated makes it harder to move around the plane when your torso just doubled in volume - more crucially: if the plane does take-on water it means you'll be trapped inside the plane because you won't be able to submerge yourself to access an underwater door or exit.
  • Useful consciousness at altitude is measured in seconds, not minutes, and you will likely be unconscious and suffering hypoxia if you get distracted - it will take you a good 10-15 seconds to put your own mask on, let alone someone else's. It's entirely possible you'll die or suffer serious brain damage in your selfless attempt to assist your child.

Before I was aware of these facts I simply assumed the reasons were more mundane: inflating your life-jacket would simply make things slightly harder for yourself, and you should don your own mask first simply because it's easier - and I thought that inflating my own jacket inside the plane would actually save me time, and that I believed I was perfectly capable of assisting family members with their masks before my own if I held my breath. While laughable when informed, I genuinely believed these facts about myself until fairly recently. It would not surprise me if many passengers today feel the same way about themselves.

I understand the the real reasons for the policies make for grim reading and putting those kinds of visceral descriptions in the videos would spook passengers - but I assumed that because the videos never give any dire warnings, and are always said with a cheerful tone of voice, that the instructions weren't all that important, so it would somehow be tolerable if I did my own thing and disregarded the rules because I thought I was acting in my own best interest.

So why don't they at least add some transparency and explanation, for example they could say:

  • Never inflate your life-jacket inside the aircraft so you can fit through smaller openings and to avoid being trapped if the aircraft takes on water.
  • Always put on your own air-supply mask first before assisting others because seconds matter in low-oxygen situations.

While the sample explanations I gave don't go into too much detail, they still make it clear to passengers that the consequences of noncompliance are serious, if not fatal - and could still be read with a cheery tone of vocie :)

I compare this to the problem with "Danger: Confined Space" warning signs: the layperson thinks a confined space is dangerous because they might casually bang their head on a low ceiling - no thought is paid towards the common, very real risks and dangers of dangerous gasses pooling in a narrow shaft - yet it isn't too much trouble to add a short message to the sign saying "Because of trapped carbon-monoxide and other gasses", for example. It's odd because we already have other explanatory danger signs like "High voltage" (don't touch it without gloves), "Moving parts" (don't touch it, period) and "Falling objects" (so wear a hard-hat) - so why not airline safety instructions?

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    $\begingroup$ "Why don't commercial passenger safety videos ever explain policy instead of dictating it?". Nothing prevents doing that, so why did BA make this choice is a matter of opinion unless one works with BA, and reasons are likely remote from aviation. $\endgroup$
    – mins
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 6:41
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    $\begingroup$ IIRC some airlines do explain the reasons, Virgin Atlantic is one of them. They've made their safety announcement entertaining, which gets a lot more people watching it, one of the things I like about their approach. $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 7:24
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    $\begingroup$ In some ways, this is almost a question for the User Experience Stack Exchange. My not-answer (because I don't have sources to back me up at this time) is that to be as non-confusing as possible to the broadest audience, and to have the best chance of being remembered in an emergency, direct instruction is given rather than explanation. Yes, for some people, an explanation will stick better than an order, but that's not true of everyone. I also think that your comparison to safety signs is apt. For clarity and broadest compliance, they keep it short and simple. +1 from me for the question. $\endgroup$
    – Dranon
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 14:13
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    $\begingroup$ Why would they explain why? It would just confuse people: it's a rule and you have to do it. When you see a speed limit sign, do you expect an explanation? $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 23:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Dai - Slightly off topic, but you don't actually seem to understand why you should put your own mask on first! The key point is twofold: time until someone without a mask passes out - relatively short; time until someone without a mask gets permanent injury - relatively long. If you put the mask on an incapable person: they'll be fine but you'll then pass out, and the incapable person can't put your mask on you - you then die. If you put your mask on first the incapable person will pass out, but you are then able to put their mask on them before permanent injury occurs. $\endgroup$
    – AndyT
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 12:04

9 Answers 9

  1. There is no time. You need to convey the information in as little time as possible or people (those few that watch at all) lose interest and start doing other things.
  2. Reasoning tends to invite arguments, there's always someone who thinks he knows better. You don't want that.
  3. Simplicity. Make things as easy to understand as possible using simple words. That way less intelligent people and people who have trouble with your language are more likely to understand what's expected of them.

There might be other reasons, but those are the ones that come to mind.

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    $\begingroup$ I tend to disagree. Especially for life jackets. Ryanair in particular adds as this will impede your exit. How long does that take to say? 3-4 seconds maximum? But now you know: inflate jacket before exit -> drowning. Let's not forget that according to Wikipedia in Ethiopian 961 Many passengers died because they inflated their life jackets in the cabin. I guess they were also told not to inflate them... $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 8:29
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    $\begingroup$ In a real emergency, say in a car accident, if I need some bystander to call the police or ambulance, I would address him firmyl and say very clearly, "You! Call an ambulance now! Take your phone and dial XYZ. Go!" to increase the chance to get through their excitement or whatever state they are in. I would never get the idea to start explaining why. The same applies here. Obviously the emergency is not there yet, but if one should ever happen, people might just remember the clear command instead of some convoluted explanation. $\endgroup$
    – AnoE
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 15:53
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    $\begingroup$ As a system administrator with 20 years experience communicating with users, the exact same truths apply to IT policies and procedures. The only time people will care about the reasons is to argue with them, and the only people who will even understand the reasons already know them. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 21:25
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    $\begingroup$ @AnoE That's exactly right. I still remember my exact safety briefing on day one at work, about what to do in the event of an imminent hazardous chemical release: "If you are brave, you will shout 'Acetylene leak! "Evacuate! Everybody out!' and then run like **** for the exit. But if you are wise, you will just run like **** while you are still alive". If I had been given a 5 minute chemistry lecture, I would have forgotten the details 40 years ago, if I ever remembered them at all. $\endgroup$
    – alephzero
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 7:54
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    $\begingroup$ @jwenting You're also providing an example that providing reasons tends to invite arguments. :) $\endgroup$
    – Mark H
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 23:15

It's true, this is a UX question.

DROP THE WEAPON! The power of clear, directive communication is to get you to act fast.

Whereas if you try to explain the thing, people's minds start to turn, and for lack of anything better to do, they start to argue. And it turns into this.

The other thing is that for anyone who is cognitive-impaired, or language-impaired, or just in a high-workload environment... when you add words, you add confusion. Hence brevity codes.

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    $\begingroup$ You are not asking anyone to do anything immediately. Your target is to get people remember what to do. I would actually think, that explaining the reasons would help understand, remember and act correctly when the situation comes. At lest for me, after seeing this video I now understand and probably remember far better in an emergency why to put my mask on before helping my children: youtube.com/watch?v=XcvkjfG4A_M $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 9:28
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    $\begingroup$ The video is disturbing because it rings so true...airplanes use magic :))) $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 15:48

In a word: fear

"Increased perception of risk" would be a longer way to say the same.

Consider that the more you expand on risks and dangers, the more dangerous and risky the activity seems.

As a parallel example - people who want to ride a bicycle after an absence express an increased fear after they're told to wear a helmet, and wear a high-vis vest, and carry lights at night, and wear gloves, etc.

Spending a heap of time explaining about uncommon scenarios will increase the perception, and hence the perceived risk.

Final example from a meme: "With the amount of stop drop and roll training we did I thought I would be on fire a lot more as an adult." Increased perception again.


Because they don't have to.

Air carriers are not required to explain why, so they may choose not to. They are required to instruct, and there is a long list of instructions that are required. Air carriers follow what is required of them, at a minimum.

As a crewmember tasked with briefing our air carrier's passengers, I have a long list of items that I have to cover. I cover the items that I have to cover, and do so as succinctly as I can. I may choose not to do too much explaining or go into too much detail on why they may need to know about the location of exits, survival gear, and fire extinguishers. Passengers could become anxious if you explain the consequences of not wearing a seat belt, not promptly initiating use of the O2 mask, etc. They are already staring at you wondering why you are saying all this and are probably wondering how much longer till they can return to reading the newspaper. Explaining time of useful consciousness could be disconcerting. I would rather tell them simply to put on the mask; after all, I will take care of getting them safely down to a reasonable pressure altitude anyway.

Now, if I was taking a close friend flying, I might go into more detail about what we are doing and why. But for the traveling public, I choose not to.

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    $\begingroup$ "Air carriers are not required to explain why, so they don't", When not required to do something, airlines don't do it, it this your opinion or do you have something to support this statement? Is this valid for any domain, price increase, safety, crew training... all at the minimum required by law? $\endgroup$
    – mins
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 19:42
  • $\begingroup$ @mins I would not espouse the notion that an air carrier will categorically avoid any action not expressly required of it. In this answer I offer my experience and reasoning as to why air carriers don't go into more detail. There are likely other reasons. The air carrier that I work for actually does include additional details in our preflight briefings beyond what are expressly required (location of briefing cards, use of personal electronic devices). $\endgroup$
    – J W
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 20:47
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    $\begingroup$ @mins Of course it's valid. Welcome to the real world. If a pilot can get a type certificate on an airlines new aircraft type with 5 hours ground training and a check ride, no business that aims to make a profit will give them 20 hours ground training, 10 hours flight training, and two check rides a month apart just to make sure they haven't forgotten anything during that month! But balance that against the fact that civil aviation is one of the most heavily regulated activities on earth today. That's why it's such a safe method of transport. $\endgroup$
    – alephzero
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 8:01

Edwards: Why the big secret? People are smart. They can handle it.

Kay: A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it. Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you'll know tomorrow.

Yes, I just quoted Men in Black as an authoritative source, but never mind that. The logic is surprisingly sound.

The airlines don't care if you remember not to inflate your life vest before leaving the cabin when everything is just fine. They care that you remember these things during a panicky situation where life vest inflation is a real concern. When this happens, your mind doesn't work. If you were dependent on your mind working, you are probably dead.

We have a lot of experience with how people react in these situations. It turns out its more effective to command people to do things rather than explain to them why they should do it. If they memorize the reason, they may try to think their way through the event to see whether the reason qualifies right now. Without a working mind, that's a big issue. In emergency situations, it's more important to do than think.

Now some people can overcome this. You may be someone who can respond better by knowing why oxygen is flowing to the mask, even though the bag may not inflate. But they have found that, in an emergency, the people they need to cater to are better supported by giving orders, not giving reasons.

And, if you're someone like me, you may choose to look up why the bag may not inflate. That's your prerogative. Their job is to ensure safety.

And if you're curious:

The "dixie cup" masks have a constant flow rate of oxygen into them. This is much cheaper than other forms of masks, but human breathing is not constant. The bag acts as a buffer. It also ensures that you rebreathe the air. If you start hyperventilating, which would waste oxygen, the bag will inflate more, capturing more of your wasted oxygen for the next breath. If you breath smoothly, you may not see the bag move at all. (Good luck breathing smoothly!)

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    $\begingroup$ "In emergency situations, it's more important to do than think." It's a nice phrase, but probably wrong. You can find as many proofs of this statement than counter-examples. Hudson ditching has been done after thinking about all possibilities. $\endgroup$
    – mins
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 20:49
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    $\begingroup$ @mins Actually, I would it is the definition of an emergency situation. An emergency is a situation where you must act. The best stay cool under pressure and succeed at thinking while acting, but the acting had to happen. Consider that, if someone takes charge, they can think, while everyone else just acts. That typically works in an emergency. Contrast that with the situation where everyone thinks and nobody acts. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 20:53
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    $\begingroup$ @mins Actually that's a classic case of pre-rehearsing scenarios so that you know the options, rapid evaluation of options, and simply playing the scenarios for those options. The first fallback is always to land back at the runway; when that wasn't possible, Sullenberger already knew about Teterboro; and when that wasn't possible he had enough experience to have ditching as a final strategy. He didn't have to think deeply about it, just look at the situation and react. The radio traffic with the tower wasn't a discussion, it was simple statements of "this is what I'm doing". $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 10:24
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    $\begingroup$ Those who act first and try to understand after are bound to reach deadlocks more than the others as soon as the situation is not trivial. Much of the content of this page is plausibility dressed up in truth... step back and read again. I don't challenge the ultimate choice of BA, but none of the answers contains the beginning of a credible explanation. $\endgroup$
    – mins
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 11:32
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    $\begingroup$ Actually very few people believed the earth was flat. $\endgroup$
    – Lenne
    Commented Jul 22, 2017 at 11:29

Ryanair explicitly says "in the unlikely event of landing on water [...] do not inflate your jacket before leaving the plane, as doing so will impede your exit."

Since you refer to BA, I think it is only a matter of BA's choices.

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    $\begingroup$ "Impede your exit" doesn't imply "you'll be trapped in the plane as it sinks and you'll drown" though - I'm concerned it trivializes the danger. $\endgroup$
    – Dai
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 20:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Dai It doesn't? If you're impeded from exiting an aircraft that has landed in water, what do you think is going to happen? $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Commented Jul 22, 2017 at 0:43
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    $\begingroup$ @reirab Well, "impede" doesn't sound like "prevent" $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 22, 2017 at 20:59
  • $\begingroup$ @HagenvonEitzen Impede means to "delay or prevent by means of obstruction." As a native speaker of American English, it seems like perfectly appropriate word choice here to me, but perhaps it's not as obvious to non-native speakers? If so, that would indeed be a good argument for changing the word choice, since, obviously, lots of passengers are not native speakers. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Commented Jul 22, 2017 at 22:45
  • $\begingroup$ @HagenvonEitzen: Well, if you're an extremely strong swimmer, it's possible you might be able to exit the aircraft even with an inflated vest, in which case it would only "impede your exit"... $\endgroup$
    – Vikki
    Commented Jun 22, 2018 at 16:41

The US regulation requiring airline cabin safety briefings is here:


...and ends with "(c) The certificate holder shall describe in its manual the procedure to be followed in the briefing required by paragraph (a) of this section." So, the requirement to brief passengers on specific items is a legal requirement, but the FAA allows each carrier to create its own procedures for doing so. The procedures in the "manual" referred to also require FAA approval, so individual airline staff aren't given a ton of latitude on what to put into or leave out of a safety briefing. There may also be time constraints involved, depending on how long the cabin crew has to get the briefing done, complete cabin checks (seatbelt compliance, carry-ons secured, etc) and then get sat down and belted in themselves before takeoff (all regulatory requirements.)

If you look around during the average cabin briefing, you'll note that at least half the passengers are already not paying attention, so making it longer and more detailed may not actually help much - and there are enough fearful flyers among the customers that enumerating the exact consequences of failing to comply with crew instructions isn't necessarily going to calm the masses. Most flight attendants would be happy to answer any specific safety questions when they have time during the flight, so if you're wondering "why" things are briefed the way they are, the additional information should be available.

Loss of cabin pressure is unlikely to have any permanent effect as the pilots have their own quick-donning emergency oxygen masks and after putting those on will respond by initiating a VERY enthusiastic descent to 10,000 feet as soon as possible. Time of useful passenger consciousness at typical cruise altitudes (mid to high 30s) is less than a minute without supplemental oxygen, but it's 30 minutes or so at 18,000 feet - and the aircraft will be there in something like one to two minutes on the way down to 10,000 where most people would be fine without masks.

To the extent practical, the cabin crew will also provide additional reinforcement of the instructions if an emergency actually occurs (e.g., "Do NOT inflate your vest until you're out of the aircraft!"), so there will be more than the initial briefing if things get ugly.

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    $\begingroup$ This is a minor point, but the air carrier's manual requires FAA acceptance, not approval.The FAA sometimes makes a big deal about the difference between those two words. $\endgroup$
    – J W
    Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 4:09

There are some further answers not mentioned yet.

  • They do not know the reason themselves. Many, many rules have a history when someone has made a discovery and shared his knowledge about it. People have a tendency to forget or misinterpret the original reason and only stick to rules because, you know, once you follow it, you are safe. This is a problem because once a rule becomes obsolete for the reason that it was errornous or does not apply anymore, people stick to the original rules.
    In victorian times the man should go before the woman upstairs so he cannot see her legs. Later the rule was changed because women were wearing boots with heels, long skirts and sport was unwomanly, so they could easily feint or trip and the man is at least able to catch her. Now in modern times the rule is actually obsolete, but still followed.
    So good luck trying to find someone in the airline who actually knows that people were drowing with their life jackets or that people lose their mind and rapidly pass out without oxygen.

  • People are different. You see that already in school. The more right-leaning pupils are believing that rules must be obeyed and challenging them is rude. The more left leaning pupils are suspecting that the rules are there to impede their freedom and are prone to do exactly the opposite. Other pupils are not taking attention, take no interest in their surroundings and don't listen. (This applies equally to adults. My ex-girlfriend was driving the urban railway to home when a tornado was hitting southern Hamburg, the railway stopped and passed 30 m apart from her over the bridge and knocked over the river trees. As incredible as it sounds, she insisted that nobody else seems to even notice it).
    So as many people here already mentioned it, it may make sense to address the instructions in a form that most people are aware of it (and CYA for the airline...You did not listen to the instructions?).

  • Less attack surface. "Put on your mask immediately when it falls down". (Passenger did not do it and dies). "The person did not comply with our instructions and we are therefore not responsible".
    "Please put on your oxygen mask because it will take only 15 seconds to lose consciousness". Shyster: "My client has witnesses who can certify that he carefully used a stopwatch to put on the mask after 12 seconds, but he lost consciousness before the time. So the airline is responsible because my client trusted them with his life for the correctness of the claim". Blah. Blah. Blah.

  • People are prejudiced, biased or even plain dumb and tend to misinterpret explanations. Every author of a controversial topic could tell you long tales of what people assumedly found in their books which they have never written, even the contrary. Heck, if you follow discussions here, you are often surprised what people interpret in your comments (Hm..what???).
    When Feyman was working on the atomic bomb, he made an interesting observation about the safes: Once they are open, due to a design flaw you could easily take the first and second combination component inconspicously in seconds. He demonstrated it before a colonel who was flabbergasted, explained it to him in detail and said: "Please instruct people that they do not leave their safes and cabinets open". What did the colonel? He instructed:"Everyone who was in contact with Feynman should change their combination".
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    $\begingroup$ "The more right-leaning pupils are believing that rules must be obeyed and challenging them is rude. The more left leaning pupils are suspecting that the rules are there to impede their freedom and are prone to do exactly the opposite." What? This is not only incorrect and overly broad, but just generally inflammatory. $\endgroup$
    – corsiKa
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 23:40
  • $\begingroup$ It is possible the technical staff at the airline disagree with the safety policy that is required by law. So, to announce the policy but attempt to minimize compliance, they simply state the policy with no explanation. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 22, 2017 at 6:45
  • $\begingroup$ @ThorstenS. I would classify that as "libertarian" rather than left-wing or anarchical. $\endgroup$
    – Dai
    Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 15:44
  • $\begingroup$ @Dai AFAIK in the UK it fits exactly, but in the US it is tightly associated with unrestricted capitalism. "Liberal" is also a false friend, it means in the EU mostly what "Libertarians" means in the US. Also most liberals/libertarians still believe that the government should wield power over individuals to protect rights and act as judge in conflicts. Anarchists in contrast do not accept authority at all. I avoided "liberal/libertarian" because it helds different and conflicting meanings (difference e.g. between libertarian socialists and anarcho-capitalists!). $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 23:08

You'll hate this, but IMHO you misunderstand the purpose of the briefing/video.

It's primarily safety theatre to ensure that the "self-loading freight" (sorry, "valued passengers") feel that they are embarking on a slightly hazardous enterprise but are in good hands due to the skills of the airline staff.

In fact, the chances of anyone being in a life-threatening incident on a civil airliner are vanishingly small. Even for airline employees, the vast majority will go through their entire career without such an incident. When incidents do occur, they are often either non-threatening or a total loss (no amount of seat-belts, oxygen masks or locked away tray tables will save you when the plane slams into a mountain at 600mph).

Commercial flights on small aircraft are a lot more hazardous than jets, but omit the safety video and often any kind of briefing beyond the pilot looking over her shoulder and checking y'all strapped in, eh?

Flying would still be safer than driving if they had no cabin crew, took all the seats out and had the passengers hang on to grab rails, just like the airport bus (which is way more likely to come to a sudden stop than an airliner).

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    $\begingroup$ While some (or even all) of this might be correct. It's not an answer to the question. $\endgroup$
    – Jamiec
    Commented Jul 18, 2019 at 12:35

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