After 9/11, flight attendants won a long-fought battle to be recognized as safety workers. The results have been helpful from a labor perspective, but they haven't done much for overall passenger safety.
As Drew Whitelegg describes in his book Working the Skies, airlines don't draw any more attention to matters of safety than they absolutely must, lest they turn off rather than attract customers.
In some cases, like Southwest Airlines' famous safety rap, individual flight attendants have taken it upon themselves to liven up the cabin, to make the announcements more fun (and probably to make their jobs more tolerable).
More recently, the airlines have adopted a similar approach as an official corporate strategy. For example, my hometown airline Delta introduced a new safety video last year, featuring a shapely strawberry blonde flight attendant as its narrator.
The video included numerous cuts to close-crops of her face, accentuating her high cheekbones and full lips. At one point, she playfully wags a finger in front of the camera, rejoining: "Smoking is not allowed on any Delta flight."
Her name is Katherine Lee, and she is an actual flight attendant who works at Delta corporate in Atlanta.
But the Internet dubbed her "Deltalina" thanks to her resemblance to sexpot actress Angelina Jolie.
The YouTube video of her security schtick has been viewed over 1.3 million times. She appeared on television talk shows and on CNN. Wired.com called her Delta's Sexy Safety Starlet. In a weird historical inversion, this very much is your father's Pan Am.
In a similar, yet weirder maneuver, Air New Zealand recently began running an in-flight safety video with its cabin crew, both male and female, totally naked, but emblazoned with body-paint uniforms.
Careful framing and cuts insure the video is totally PG (there is a blurry booty shot at the end), but the intention is clear: reinvigorate attention by giving passengers something they want to look at.
And these videos certainly have made passengers pay more attention, even if they have also perpetuated a retrograde picture of the air hostess as sex object. In the words of the Delta manager who produced the Deltalina video, they "make sure [our customers] know what to do in the event of an emergency... adding bits of humor and unexpected twists to something pretty standard."
Yet, in making the safety briefing more interesting, efforts like those of Delta and Air New Zealand actually reduce its ability to communicate safety information, if that was even possible.
Flight attendants tell us that "There may be 50 ways to leave your lover but there are only eight ways to leave this airplane" as a way to get our attention. Airlines produce and air safety videos with bombshells and nudists because they want to try to raise our interest above the level a printed pamphlet, illustrated card, filmed demonstration, or live display can accomplish.
The pique works; we hear and see them (Rapper Steward is funny, Katherine Lee is beautiful). But what we attend to is not the material being delivered, but the manner by which it is delivered. I have flown hundreds of thousands of miles on Delta since Deltalina made her debut, but I still have no idea where to find my life vest ("Life vests are either between your seats, under your seats, or in a compartment under your armrest"). Never mind the eight steps required to don one properly.
The result is a kind of safety theater. Airlines perform the appearance of safety in order to comply with federal and international regulations while imposing the lowest cognitive and emotional burden possible on the passenger.
If you've ever been on an ocean cruise, you've been required to do what's called a "muster drill." Even though ships sink even more rarely than planes crash, international law requires the crew to conduct an actual drill, not just a demo (with or without body paint), in which passengers must don their lifejackets and report to their assigned lifeboat station within a certain amount of time.
The lessons learned from this practice are banal, but startling. It's easy to put on a life vest, once you have done it once. It's easy to find the right lifeboat station, once you know where to look. It's easy to find the fastest route to that station, once you have tread it. But the first time, all of these tasks are confusing.
Likewise, it's easy to fasten and unfasten your airplane seatbelt, because you have done it so many times. Thankfully, I've never had to put on one of those yellow oxygen masks that may fall "in the unlikely event that cabin pressure changes." But if they did, despite myself, I bet I wouldn't know exactly what to do -- never mind finding the exit doors that have inflatable rafts instead of slides, or divining the proper way to unlatch and extract an exit door.