What role does fear play in absorbing safety instructions?

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People who are afraid to fly – or suffer anxiety related to flying – may react differently during an emergency and also either misinterpret or disregard routine flight safety instructions. But addressing a common misconception about aircraft survivability may be the airline industry’s best opportunity to address this fear and ensure passengers pay attention to safety briefings.

During the recent Red Cabin Innovations and Aircraft Seating conference in Hamburg, Ruth Williams, head of marketing at STG Aerospace, said that fear of flying could affect passengers’ decision-making process during evacuation. She suggested that cabin design elements – such as the luminescent evacuation guidance strips that STG Aerospace produces – can help passengers with impaired judgment find their way out of the plane safely by working on their intuitive response.

This principle of designing for people in panic mode and making cabin safety equipment intuitive has always been a core consideration for design of the cabin. But observed behavior during real emergencies suggests that human factors may negate the effectiveness of this design.

Williams shared an impromptu survey of passengers seated next to her on frequent flights over the past year. Some of her seat companions, who admitted they were anxious, said that they had counted rows to the exit (a good practice), but many had decided that their exit was the door at the front of the plane, disregarding exits closer to their seats.

While Williams acknowledged this wasn’t a scientific study, it is anecdotally interesting, suggesting that fearful flyers may misunderstand safety instructions. But is fear the root cause of this misunderstanding, or is something else contributing to it?

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Fear of flying is difficult to pin down. There is a range of emotion between phobia that prevents people from flying to generalized anxiety that may affect people who fly often.

Williams cited a commonly referenced study, performed by Robert D. Dean and Kerry M. Whitaker and sponsored by Boeing. It determined that one-third of American flyers were affected by either a fear of flying (12.6%) or anxiety related to flying (18.1%). The study, which was conducted in the late 1970s, remains the most detailed of its kind. But the timeframe raises questions of whether attitudes have changed as flying became far more commonplace.

Subsequent analysis of aviophobia shows that many individuals still self-report a fear of flying or anxiety related with air travel. Also, other fears or anxieties, such as a fear of confined spaces or a fear of crowds, are made worse in the aircraft cabin. These psychological factors can also explain a number of common disruptive behaviors in flight.

Fear of flying presents behaviorally in a widely diverse fashion. The most obviously observable symptom is avoidance-sufferers will not fly under any circumstances, fly only when absolutely necessary, or fly but exhibit anxious behavior during flight (Iljon, Bor & Van Gerwin, 2006; Oakes & Bor, 2010).

A number of safety behaviors may be demonstrated including seat preference (close to exits, windows to avoid interaction with others), and also nervously questioning the cabin crew about weather, technical problems, the pilot’s qualifications and the like (Oakes & Bor, 2010).

Additionally, aggressive behavior may be fueled by, and self-medication with alcohol and other substances may be an attempt to cope with distressing symptoms and further result in aberrant or aggressive behavior (Oakes & Bor, 2010; Iljon, Bor & Van Gerwin, 2006; Tomaro, 2003). — SPECIFIC PHOBIA: FLIGHT Matthew Laker, Department of Psychiatry, First Faculty of Medicine, Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic.

However, fear of flying or anxiety may not explain passengers’ failure to absorb safety instructions. A false-premise fatalism can affect even those who would say they are not afraid of flying.

An NTSB report published in 2001 finds that a common misconception plays a role in how passengers process safety briefings.

“One reason passengers do not pay attention to the briefing may be their belief that accidents are not survivable. Public perceptions of survivability may be substantially lower than the actual rate of 95.7 percent for all Part 121 accidents. Empowered with the knowledge of aircraft accident survivability rates, passengers may take additional steps to improve their chances of survival, including planning exit routes, paying attention to safety briefings, and reading safety cards,” the authors state.

As the NTSB suggests, this misconception about survivability should be addressed more directly by the airline industry. Fear of flying may not go away entirely, but passengers should know that aviation safety design works and that paying attention can and has saved lives.

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