People do an ‘alarmingly’ bad job of recalling information from airline preflight safety briefings

People have trouble remembering information from preflight safety briefings, according to new research published in The International Journal of Aerospace Psychology.

“Passenger safety is important. There are, however, few opportunities to convey the importance of this and how passengers can play an active role in ensuring they are as safe as possible when flying. The pre-flight safety briefing is one of these opportunities, which has received little attention in the past,” explained Brett Molesworth, an associate professor of human factors and aviation safety at the University of New South Wales.

In the study, 162 university students watched an actual preflight safety video used by an Australian airline that varied in its delivery. For example, some participants only listened to the audio from the video, while others received a live demonstration as they watched the video.

The researchers found that participants recalled more information about supplemental oxygen when a crew member demonstrated its usage. But the medium of delivery did not appear to have a significant impact the participants’ ability to recall safety information about seat belts, brace position, exits, emergency lighting, escape slides and life rafts, smoking, and safety cards.

And, overall, the participant did an “alarmingly” bad job of recalling safety information regardless of how it was presented. Native English speakers only recalled 49% of information from the safety briefing on average, while non-Native English speakers only recalled 27%.

Participants in a control group who watched an unrelated video were able to recall — based on previous airline flights — almost as much as those who got the preflight safety briefing.

The researchers also found that those who watched a video tended to report a worse mood afterward compared to those who only listened to audio — but it is unclear why.

“Pre-flight safety briefings provide important information that you (a passenger) may need in an emergency. Hence as a passenger, it is important that you pay attention during the briefing. Often this is difficult due to various factors, including the method of delivery and the quality of the briefing,” Molesworth said.

Molesworth said the challenge for airlines is to create a safety briefing that both captures people’s attention and is easy to recall.

“Caution needs to be exercised by airlines when creating pre-flight safety briefings,” he told PsyPost. “Many airlines engage their marketing department to what would appear to be the exclusion of the safety department when designing briefings. The end result is often a briefing that is creative, possibly funny, but dilutes or disregards the safety message.”

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and similar agencies around the world require that passengers be provided with a safety briefing. But the regulations only stipulate what topics need to be included in a briefing.

“The regulators need to be more proactive in their review and assessment of pre-flight safety briefings,” Molesworth said. “Their focus should be on whether the intent of the briefing is achieved (passenger educated), as opposed to whether a briefing is provided or not.”

But it’s not all up to the airlines and regulators. Molesworth also has some advice for passengers.

“Passengers should, as much as possible get actively involved in the briefing,” he said. “For example, count the number of seats between them and the nearest exit. Examine how the seat belt operates, in particular opens. Note, a number of latch style seat belts release at different angles. Observe and look for where the life vest is located/stored.”

The study, “Preflight Safety Briefings: Understanding the Relationship Between Mode of Delivery, Recall of Key Safety Messages, and Mood”, was authored by Brett R. C. Molesworth, Joanna Pagan, and Chloe Wilcock.