It is the most ignored — and usually most soporific —moment of any flight — the safety announcement, that pre-takeoff ritual that often leads to travellers closing their eyes. Who among us, after all, doesn't know how to unbuckle a seat belt? Yawn.
Airlines, mind you, don't see it that way, since they are legally obligated to tell passengers what to do if things go wrong. And they have struggled over the years to keep things interesting, using wisecracking flight attendants as well as deadly serious warnings about emergency slides, water landings and the dreaded "loss of cabin pressure."
Some carriers have lately stepped up that assault on aviation apathy by showing preflight videos that are a mix of the serious and the surreal. Take, for instance, a new effort by Delta Air Lines, which invites fliers to find various bizarre details in their safety videos — a "What's wrong with this picture?" approach that includes cameos by a big yellow robot, a tiny suitcase and the semi-famous flight attendant known as Deltalina (more on her later). Mauricio Parise, general manager for marketing communications at Delta, said that the two new videos, which had their debut in November, were meant to illustrate both the airline's plucky spirit and its continuing need to "make sure that people pay attention."
"We try to find a way to tell the story, and make it fresh," he said.
They aren't the first. In 2007, Virgin America also rolled out a cheeky animated version of the safety announcement, complete with flying fish, matadors and a multitasking nun. The video begins by asking passengers to check out the safety card in the seat pocket in front of them — "Not only does it have pretty pictures, but it has important information" — before bringing up the seemingly inane seat belt reminder.
"For the .0001 percent of you who have never operated a seat belt before, it works like this," the narrator says in a tone dripping with sarcasm.
Foreign carriers have also played it for laughs. Air New Zealand recently employed the flamboyant fitness instructor Richard Simmons to make its announcement stand out, with a video that included women in Day-Glo leotards, men in Day-Glo headbands and Simmons's somewhat unhinged delivery.
"Stretch and slide! Yeah! You're a giraffe!" Simmons quips, apropos of, well, it's not clear.
A goofier video — An Unexpected Briefing based on The Hobbit and featuring elves, wizards and hairy feet — was an even bigger hit, with millions of downloads on YouTube. The safety announcement requirement dates to the 1960s, when the Federal Aviation Administration started outlining the various bits of information that the airlines need to convey — exits, oxygen, etc. But it leaves the presentation of it up to the airlines. "We specify the 'what',' said Les Dorr Jr., an FAA spokesman. "And it's up to the air carriers to determine the 'how'."
That said, Abby Lunardini, a spokeswoman for Virgin America, said the administration was "involved directly with the edits and the re-edits" of the airline's 2007 video, including offering its critique of the animated visuals. But even airlines that still do the announcement the old-fashioned way — in person — say they have sometimes made an effort to liven things up preflight. Brad Hawkins, a spokesman for Southwest Airlines, said that while "not every flight is a riotous comedy act," its flight attendants had found that "people pay better attention when the material is compelling."
Ditto for JetBlue, which said its crews "often interject a sense of humour into the onboard announcements" to both engage customers and help them relax.
As for Delta, the airline says its new video has been favourably received by fliers, especially a cameo by Katherine Lee, the red-haired flight attendant whose sassy — appearance in a previous flight video earned her the nickname Deltalina. (Think a lesser known Angelina Jolie, serving you a drink at 35,000 feet.)
Whitney Pastorek, a freelance writer, said she saw the new video — and Deltalina — on a recent flight, and approved. "My whole plane made this sort of 'aww'-ing noise," Pastorek said, "like when people see someone's new baby for the first time." (Jesse Mckinley/The New York Times News Service)