Your seat cushion is floatable

Volume 2, Issue 2; 14 Jan 2018

So, I listen to passenger safety announcements on airplanes.

I listen to passenger safety announcments for a couple of reasons. One is that years ago I heard an interview with an NTSB investigator, a man with literally years of experience in commercial aviation, specifically the consequences of aviation failures: who survives and who doesn’t. He said he always listens. Good enough for him, good enough for me. The more familiar you are with the environment, the faster you can react, the more likely you are to survive. I worry not at all about my safety when flying, but I do know if the closest exit is behind me or in front of me.

Another reason is the language. You have to imagine that every word of those announcements has been carefully and explicitly chosen by a committee of experts who considered dozens of drafts and hundreds of change proposals. It has to be concise. It has to be clear, to the largest extent possible, even if your first language isn’t English. It has to be unambiguous. It has to engage with a diverse and enormous audience. Ideally, maybe, it’s even a little bit entertaining. And then you know it gets reviewed by a legal department full of very serious people who consider the litigation risks associated with every word.

If you’ve never tried to write concise, clear, unambiguous prose professionally, you have an insufficient understanding of just how difficult it is.

In that regard, I think the new American Airlines version (YouTube) is really very good: the sets are creative and interesting, the effects are clever, and the choreography is excellent. (I also think, even though I know it’s a set and not in any way a real airplane, that the leg room portrayed borders on criminally misleading.) It’s a fine short film in its own right.

The short flight from LAX to SFO on a small regional jet that doesn’t have the new, fancy video. Instead the announcement is read from a card while flight attendants mime the actions.

The announcement today included the phrase “your seat cushion is floatable” which sits uneasily on my ear. It’s not wrong, but it doesn’t strike me as the sort of thing you’d naturally say. They mean more than “your seat cushion floats”, of course. What they mean is more akin to “your seat cushion can be used as a floatation device” or perhaps “floatation aid” to avoid the jargony use of “device”. Even then, perhaps “used as an aid in floatation” would be better. But not, apparently, to professionals who do this for a living.

See. Interesting, right? Well, interesting to me anyway. I got five or so minutes of thought out of it on the flight and another twenty or so writing this, so I’m happy.