Be an air crew member for a day, sort of

If you've ever wondered why airlines dim lights upon landing, why it's important to put your oxygen mask on or what it's like to jump onto an inflatable emergency slide, British Airways has just the ticket. It's the BA Flight Safety Awareness Course (, a modified version of the training that flight crews get after they're hired and then once a year thereafter.

It's a fascinating way to spend a day in London. You get to slide down that emergency chute. If you've ever wanted to pull the inflation cord on one of those airplane life vests, this is your chance. You also get to evacuate a cabin filled with "smoke" (the kind used in a theater or rock concert, but it does the trick). You'll practice the fine points of the "brace position." And best of all, you'll understand why some of the more obscure procedures and safety warnings are part of the flight experience.

You've heard it over and over: Put on your own oxygen mask before helping those around you. The reason? You might only have 15 or 20 seconds in the event of a cabin decompression, during which all oxygen would be sucked out of the plane (and your lungs), before you would experience confusion and a euphoric "stoned" state. In 30 to 45 seconds you'd probably pass out. Acting quickly is important.

Some of the details of flight safety may seem particularly arcane and even anal, but there's a reason for every one. If you've ever looked at the safety card in the seat-back pocket, you may have noticed that the correct brace position is to put your hands on your head, with one hand over the other (not with fingers locked). If something falls on you during a crash landing, you want to protect at least one hand (preferably your writing hand) because you'll need it to unbuckle your seat belt.

While your pilots are waiting for take off, they're probably doing a safety drill. They go through the motions of various procedures, touching and even moving the controls. Passengers should do these same "touch drills" before takeoff, perhaps buckling and unbuckling their seat belts three times for muscle memory.

That escape-path lighting along the floor might seem counterintuitive because it's red. Shouldn't it be green (as in "go") instead? The answer is no, and here's why: Red shows up better in a smoke-filled cabin. And indeed, it's true, as we learned when our "cabin" became a soupy fog.

Why do airlines dim the cabin lights during nighttime takeoffs and landings? You guessed it: to help adjust your eyes to the dark (either inside a smoke-filled cabin or on a darkened runway).

I left the course thinking that more passengers would listen to the preflight safety demo if airlines shared some of this insider information before each flight, maybe mixing it up from time to time so that the demo doesn't get overly long and cause more people to tune out.

On one flight, the demo might include the finer points of opening the over-wing exits. On another flight, more information about why it's important to put your oxygen mask on first (and quickly) before helping others.

More passengers would probably do what they're told in an emergency if they knew the reasons behind these rules (and time and time again, in emergencies, passengers do not listen, do the wrong thing and become victims).

I doubt airlines will ever add these extra details to their preflight safety drills. I did leave the course with a better respect for the thought that has gone into airline safety. I have even more respect for flight attendants who, as we all know, are primarily there for no other reason than our safety.

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