Friday, February 18, 2011

The airline safety briefing

The airline safety briefing we sit through before every flight is an extreme example of managing for process compliance rather than managing for outcomes.

The FAA requires airlines to repeat the same boilerplate speech before every flight, and so that's what they do. Frequent fliers tune it out, even though they might not actually be able to find that exit in the unlikely event of an emergency. Even those who listen intently have a hard time knowing what they are supposed to do.

How might the system work differently if instead the FAA required that actual passengers be randomly tested on their knowledge of what to do in case of an emegency? Not just pass a paper test, but actually be able to do what is required in an emergency?

One thing is sure - we wouldn't have to sit through a canned speech before every flight.

Instead, we'd recognize that most of the passengers on any given flight are frequent fliers. While frequent fliers make up a small percentage of fliers, they make up a larger percentage of passengers on any given flight since they fly more often, logically. So we would focus the training on them. In an emergency, you are better off having a few people who know exactly what to do rather than everyone knowing vaguely what to do.

How to do this training?

Get people to actually go through the motions. That "muscle memory" is the only way to know that you'll respond during a casualty. When I was a submarine officer, we would practice our response to fire, flooding, or engineering casualties with drills nearly every day, until each immediate action became an instinct.

To prepare for airline emergencies, we could install a mockup of an airline seat in the terminal so you could actually practice putting that mask over your mouth that is supposed to drop "in the unlikely event of a sudden drop in cabin pressure." We could have an exit door installed in the terminal so you could actually practice opening it. Every kid would want to do it, so at least the parents would have seen it done. A seat where you can practice taking out the seat cushion to use as a flotation device. An inflatable vest that you can actually practice inflating with the little tube.

We'd have written as well as oral exams. We still might have some training before each flight, but we'd mix it up so it wouldn't get stale. "OK, look around and raise your hand when you've identified the exit closest to you. Last hand up doesn't get any peanuts this flight - just kidding!"

If we think it is truly important to make sure passengers are ready for an emergency, then we ought to use some common sense to design the training to be effective. If it isn't worth making that effort, then we should just eliminate the charade.

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