A Fresh Look At Flight Safety Instructions

September 9, 2014

Usually, the airplane boarding process feels like rote muscle memory: find seat, stow bags, sit down, fall asleep. But not this time.

I am on my way to Minneapolis and I’m not tired. So for the first time in a while, I find myself listening to the classic airplane safety monologue. The flight attendant instructs passengers “to insert the metal fitting into the buckle of your seat belt” and “to take a few moments to locate your nearest exit.” And of course, to “familiarize yourself with the flight safety instruction card that is found in the seatback pocket.”

Boring, right? It seems some flight attendants have grown so weary of the spiel they’ve turned it into stand-up comedy. A few airlines have even jazzed things up, using snappy recordings or kitschy music videos to impart instructions — and, frankly, giving all of us a reason to reach for those barf bags.

But this time, for some strange reason, I hear the same old routine safety speech in a whole new way: as life advice.

Preparation For Takeoff

What do I mean? Well, since I am awake and seated in the full upright and locked position, I start dissecting the unsolicited advice. And I realize it might be helpful beyond the confines of the cabin.

Maybe the flight safety instructions can be a guide for my life’s journey ahead – when I’m flying high or when I find myself facing bumpy times or when I’m at a decision point and need some kind of lighted sign to tell me what to do and which way to go.

For example:

Keep your seatbelt fastened at all times, as turbulence can occur unexpectedly: Things inevitably get rough, so it’s necessary to buckle down and be prepared. Elisabeth Curtis, a senior lecturer in economics at Dartmouth College, says tightening your belt — even when things are going smoothly — is good financial advice. “The goal is to save over time,” Elisabeth says. “Savings can help you deal with unexpected turbulence in your life.”

In case of an emergency, your seat cushion may be used as a flotation device: If you feel adrift or need help staying afloat, it’s worth reassessing whatever you’ve been sitting on. Stop procrastinating because those things may be an unexpected source of buoyancy. Elisabeth Curtis says this is sound economic counsel, too. “Figure out what your cushion looks like … because it serves as protection in financially difficult times.” And it might just carry you to a more secure place.

Secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others: My guess is that this flight attendant-turned-therapist is suggesting that when I am under pressure I should take care of myself first — and breathe normally. Gina Shropshire, a psychotherapist in private practice and at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis, agrees. “You can’t give to others,” she advises, “if you don’t take care of yourself.”

Everyone gets one free carry-on bag and a personal item. We all have emotional baggage. Maybe it’s a good idea to trust the burdensome stuff to a higher compartment and keep the personal things close at hand. But if you’re carrying a particularly heavy load or it’s oddly shaped, it might cause some problems. “We can understand what’s in that baggage, we can unpack the suitcase,” Gina says, “but of course everyone is carrying around their whole history.”

All electronic devices should be turned off as they may interfere with navigational and communication systems: We all need to be reminded that incessant texting can interrupt the smooth operations of life. Gina says that the golden rule of psychoanalysis is “say what comes to mind” and things like electronic devices can “interfere with that freedom of thought.”

Be careful, baggage may have shifted while in flight: The same thing can happen, of course, in our everyday lives: Our baggage gets jostled and starts to slide into another person’s baggage – without anyone realizing what is happening. Psychoanalysts call it “transference” and the American Psychoanalytic Association warns that: “Transference leads to distortions in interpersonal relationships, as well as nuances of intensity and fantasy.”

Look around you for the nearest exit: It’s never good to feel trapped — professionally, personally, financially. So that means keeping an eye on the nearest exit — even if it’s behind you. And the airline kindly leaves us a little extra room when we’re heading down the exit row. Wasn’t it philosopher Paul Simon who pointed out that there must be at least 50 ways to get out of a relationship? And as a recent financial advice story in Forbes put it: “Without an exit strategy, you will lose at investing.”

Ultimately, I know life will be full of ups and downs — with choppy spots in between. But next time I am on a plane — before I sit back and relax — I’ll listen more closely when the flight attendant asks for my attention.

Gabrielle Emanuel is a Kroc Fellow at NPR. @gabrieman

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The Protojournalist: Experimental storytelling for the LURVers — Listeners, Users, Readers, Viewers — of NPR. @NPRtpj

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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