Any time I run through my checklists and get to the “Passenger Briefing” line, I can’t help but think back to a scene from the movie Tommy Boy. David Spade and Chris Farley are posing as flight attendants and get stuck with the passenger briefing. “Exits! Ok there’s one back here, and there’s uh, probably one over by the wing…somewhere…usually…” I’m always tempted to throw that line out, at least when other pilots fly with me. But I haven’t always felt confident about what a good briefing looks like. Well, sounds like. Thankfully, aviation has rescued us from bad briefings with a handy acronym to remember it by. Conveniently enough, the acronym is SAFETY. If you’re a pilot, perhaps you can craft your passenger briefing, and if you are a passenger, well, here’s what to expect.

 

S – Seat Belts

“Take the little end and stick it in the big end, and – you know what, if you guys don’t know how to use a seat belt, just ring your call button and Tommy will come back there and hit you on the head with a tack hammer…”   -Tommy Boy

It’s easy to take for granted that others might not know what we as pilots already know. As simple as fastening a seat belt may be, some of them are kinda weird or hard to find. They might cross cross or have little hooks that come together before clicking. Whatever the case, a quick demonstration of the seatbelt can go a long way. Oh, it’s also mandated by the FAA in 14 CFR 91.107 so don’t forget this part of the briefing. It should also be mentioned that the seat belts need to stay buckled for the whole flight. You can technically lose the shoulder strap once in cruise, but it all needs to be on for the rest of the flight.

Cessna 172 Seatbelt

As simple as it is once you know it, don’t leave your passengers fumbling for and figuring out a seatbelt.

 

A – Air Controls

I once took a friend flying on a cool day, so he was naturally wearing a jacket. Once we got in the air, things warmed up a bit in the cockpit and it got pretty stuffy. We’re both tall guys, so taking off the jacket while in the plane wasn’t possible. We adjusted the cabin air controls, which helped a little, but it still wasn’t the most comfortable ride for him. Passenger comfort is important, and aside from thinking ahead to things like anticipating to take off a jacket, showing a passenger how to use the controls in the briefing, even if just to adjust the vents, can make a big difference. Encourage them to speak up if they are uncomfortable, or feeling sick. When I fly, I rarely think about my own comfort. I can bounce along in bumpy air, hot and happy to just be flying. My wife, however, has been briefed and knows to speak up.

Airplane Air Conditioning Controls

Air vents (the two black spheres shown to the left) are often adjusted with a twist, but brief your passengers to their location and use so they can stay comfortable and avoid hitting the eject button (grin) trying to figure it out.

 

F – Fire Extinguisher

Everybody loves to sit around a fire..except when you’re in an airplane. I’d caution you to use a little tact when you get to this part of the briefing. While it’s important to point out where the fire extinguisher is and give a quick explanation about how to use it, “don’t scare the children.” A passenger who is not as comfortable with aviation as you are probably won’t have a great time if you begin with “hey, there’s a chance we’ll catch on fire, so keep your hand on this thing.”

Fire Extinguisher

Like a glass of milk after a jalapeño, when you need a fire extinguisher, you want to know exactly where it is – quick.

 

E – Exit, Emergencies, Equipment

In smaller planes, the exits can be fairly obvious. It’s likely the door you just used to get in the plane. You might even be touching it. At all times. But they can have their little nuances to opening, latching and locking them. Especially with the older aircraft. One plane I flew had pen marks drawn around the handle on the inside of the door to show the position you had to have it in to get the door closed.  Helpful, huh? Don’t try that if it’s not your airplane.  These basics are the kinds of things passengers need to know, just in case they need to get out on their own. Like the seat belts, you don’t need a sermon on it. A demonstration and simple explanation will do.

The door handle of a Cessna 172 in the locked position.  If you’ve flown many of these, you know that some have to be slammed just right – and it’s not a very intuitive design for a first timer.

 

In the spirit of keeping your passengers at ease, you might continue with “in the highly unlikely event of an emergency, here are a couple quick things to know.” Craft this as you like, but explaining the exit plan is critical, especially when flying an airplane with only one door. You should mention staying clear of the propeller areas as well. If there is any other equipment that would be used in an emergency, like floatations devices, cover that here. Again, try to add a little humor to keep it informative, yet lighthearted.

 

T – Traffic, Talking

You’ve likely heard me mention that my seven year old son is an excellent traffic spotter. Both adults and kids alike can help keep a second pair of eyes out for any other airplanes. You can ask them to point it out to you and even use the clock system (“traffic ten o’clock”) if they want to sound like a pro.

Reid Cessna 172

Sometimes, I think my son can spot traffic better than I can.  He can ride along any day.

 

The concept of the sterile cockpit should be explained as well. Any discussion while on critical phases of flight such as taxi, takeoff, approach and landing should be kept to only that which is necessary to the flight. It’s also good to mention what the tail number is and that if that is heard on the radio, all discussion should cease to hear the instructions.

 

Y – Your Questions

A curious passenger will likely be eager to ask a question or two. A nervous passenger can be put at ease by understanding any mysteries they might have questions about. With a running airplane, time is money, so use your best judgement for answering select questions that might be better as a ground discussion after the airplane is shut down.

Flight With Passenger Father In Law

As a passenger, my father in law was both very curious and receptive to explanations.  I walked him through everything I did.  Sounds like a future pilot to me.

 

Conclusion

Looking back, I guess the technical acronym for today’s exercise is SAFEEETTY, but that just sounds like someone who’s a little too excited about safety, yelling about it. Here’s a little example briefing for you, if you were riding along with me in a Cessna 172:

“Welcome to Clayviation Air. I’ll run you through just a couple of quick things in my best pilot voice – I’ve given my flight attendants the day off. Is your seatbelt buckled? Let’s keep that on for the duration of the flight. Here’s how you buckle and unbuckle that. The air vents are right here. Just twist them right or left as you please to adjust the amount of air. Let me know if you are uncomfortable and I can help you out. I hope to never have to touch this fire extinguisher – you can see the dust building up – but we keep it charged up right here. If we were to need it, pull this pin and squeeze the trigger to activate. Your door handle opens and closes like this, and when it’s pushed all the way down, it’s locked. Your window opens and closes like this.  Let’s keep it shut unless we’re on the ground. In the highly unlikely event of an emergency, use your door to exit, assuming we are stopped, and be sure to keep your distance from the propeller. Feel free to help me look out for other airplanes – they are fun to spot. You can simply point if you see one, or tell me their position on the clock to earn your official copilot title. Don’t be shy about talking or asking questions, but while we are taking off or landing, let’s keep the chatter to a minimum. If you have any questions, ask – just please don’t touch anything around the cockpit if we haven’t discussed it. Any questions?”

Do you have any components to YOUR briefing that we can learn from? Share them in the comments below!

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6 Comments

  1. Sue Van Liere

    Nice article. I always give a heads up about not resting their feet on those two little pedals on the floor too!

    Reply
    • Clay

      That’s a great add, Sue! I really enjoy your blog, too!

      Reply
  2. Martin Lee

    I run passengers through the process of aircraft checks including explaining that I’ll do checks before we get in the aircraft, before and immediately after I start the engine then after taxiing to the runway including a high power run. This is normal I assure them.

    Reply
    • Clay

      That’s a great idea, Martin! I also learned the hard way to let a passenger know before pulling power out abeam the numbers. Now I explain those sorts of “abrupt changes” every time.

      Reply
  3. Reid Columbia

    Wow! Great article Clay. Whether it’s the flight instructor in me or working in a two-crew environment now, I find simply narrating the action puts passengers most at ease.
    I would build on this to mention the types of flying that newly certificated pilots want to do with their passengers. Quite often, it seems that new private pilots want to go out and show their friends and family what they have been doing. Of course, that’s lots of stalls, slow flight, steep turns, and the like. Talk about scaring your passengers! In addition to putting your passengers at ease by giving them a solid briefing like the one you provided, a good direction to Pilot’s should be “don’t scare the children with your flying!”

    Reply
    • Clay

      Indeed, Reid – “Tell me what you’re doing now” goes a long way, both in flying and dental work. I have a theory that a fear of flying can be alleviated with understanding. I have a willing test subject – look out for that blog, and the experiment – soon!

      Reply

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