Christopher Muther

In the event of an emergency . . . laugh along with Betty White?

Gavin MacLeod and Betty White in an airline safety video for Air New Zealand.
Gavin MacLeod and Betty White in an airline safety video for Air New Zealand.

There’s dancing, laughing, and people splashing about in swimming pools. Happy, sporting types fish, float in hot air balloons, and star gaze. The only thing folks don’t seem to be doing in airplane safety videos is fastening seat belts or strapping on oxygen masks while seated on an actual airplane.

Air France is quite upfront about the fact that their in-flight safety video is intended to be pure safetytainment.

“Please pay attention to the following safety performance,” passengers are instructed. The airline really delivers on the performance — not so much on safety. Five beautiful mademoiselles in striped French sailor shirts playfully demonstrate how wearing a seat belt can enhance your waistline. When it’s time for an emergency exit, they deplane as if they’re dancing a choreographed number from the Jean-Luc Godard’s 1964 classic “Bande à part.”


It’s lovely to watch, but can the average Air France passenger really remember all the proper steps to a dance routine during an emergency evacuation? Start practicing now, mon amour.

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In-flight safety videos are no longer just about reminding passengers where the exit rows are located. Safety is losing to the airlines’ desire to brand themselves and create viral YouTube successes.

At first I thought my observations on this topic were simply the musings of an ornery old killjoy. That is until I reached out to Heather Poole, a flight attendant of more than 20 years and author of “Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet.”

“I’m with you on this one,” she told me before sending me an essay she wrote on the topic.

“I like to laugh just as much as everyone else,” she said of those quirky safety videos. “But there’s a time and a place for everything, and there’s nothing fun about burning alive — especially if it’s because you stared at a supermodel’s rack instead of listening to what was said.”


That certainly clears up the matter.

Although Virgin America pioneered the safetytainment concept with its animated 2007 video, it’s tiny Air New Zealand that truly grabbed the cricket ball and ran with it. Its in-flight safety videos have racked up more than 65 million hits, and for good reason. The airline created a sensation with its Middle Earth-themed “The Most Epic Safety Video Ever Made.” The Betty White-hosted “Old School Style” safety video, with special guest star Gavin MacLeod, is adorable. But watching pensioners jump into the swimming pool wearing their inflatable safety vests at the fictitious Second Wind Retirement Home doesn’t necessarily say, “Hey folks, here’s a life threatening emergency, and this is what to do.”

“The challenge is that, for the obvious reasons, airlines do not want to induce anxiety about flying right before take-off,” said Gabor Lukacs of the organization Air Passenger Rights

But when safety videos are set in studios or outdoors, they can’t show the feeling of claustrophobia in an airplane and how that may play into reactions during an emergency. I’d still like to know how to brace myself in the emergency position when I can’t feel my knees.

Instead of essential and practical information, we have Iceland Air demonstrating how the Northern Lights will lead the way to the emergency exits — but only if you’re camping in a lava field. In the video, the brace position looks like a yoga pose, and is done in a field.


On the plus side, these light-hearted safety videos can be a delightful distraction to pre-flight jitters. Even uber-frequent flyers stop and watch. British Airways’ latest has celebrities such as Gillian Anderson, Sir Ian McKellen, and Gordon Ramsay pretending to endure a humilating audition for a part in a safety video. It’s fun, but on the downside, Mr. Bean, who also appears in the video, doesn’t speak. Therefore I’m not getting any advice he may (or may not) be offering.

These videos are more interesting and far less awkward than watching a real-life flight attendant demonstrate safety procedures on the plane. Have you ever sat in the seat adjacent to the flight attendant showing how to inflate a vest, or fasten a seat belt? You need to strike a delicate balance between watching the demonstration while pretending you’re not texting goodbyes.

All in-flight safety videos must be approved by the FAA, so the safetytainment films are giving you the basics. However, you may need to examine these viral gems the same way you’d carefully examine a Where’s Waldo poster to extract the info you need from all the comedy and choreography.

The top four least safety-focused airline safety videos

1. Virgin America, “Safety Dance.”

You’ll be hard pressed to remember the safety lessons from Virgin’s all-singing, all-dancing video. The song is catchier than a third grade classroom outbreak of lice, but the lessons don’t stick. My biggest take-away from the video is the Pharrell Williams-like chorus of “So tonight, get ready to fly/Cuz we’re gonna live it on up in the sky.”

2. Qantas, “Welcome to the Spirit of Australia.”

A model wearing an oxygen mask on the runway? Modern dancers showing the brace position on rocks near the ocean? A flower girl at an outdoor wedding pointing out where the emergency exits are located? This is an effective Australian post card, not so helpful as a safety video.

3 Air New Zealand, “Safety in Hollywood.”

Rhys Darby and Anna Faris hopscotch through Hollywood genres (1970s television cop show, 1980s horror flick, a cliche Western), yet don’t say a word about safety. A pair of Air New Zealand crew members pop up from time-to-time to briefly mention safety as an afterthought.

4. Air France, “France is in the Air.”

A quintet of women, in what appears to be a baby blue apartment most likely located in the chic 7th arrondissement of Paris, demonstrate airplane safety by sitting in a row of Kartell ghost chairs. Nothing about the space resembles an airplane, including the attire of the women in the video. Where are the leggings and the bare feet? Oh, wait, its Air France.

Christopher Muther can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther and on Instagram @Chris_Muther.