"In the event of a water landing, your seat may be used as a flotation device."
Awaiting takeoff on a recent flight from Washington to Columbus, Ohio, my curiosity experienced sudden turbulence upon hearing the flight attendant's rote safety announcement. Even ignoring the fact that my itinerary guaranteed any "water landing" to involve a splashdown into either the Potomac or Scioto rivers (both of which I've canoed on, but remain reluctant to nose a passenger jet into), I pondered what my last, frantic moments airborne might entail.
Screaming? Maybe. Swearing? Definitely. But stopping to pry the flotation device from my seat? Unhuh: Given the beers I had in the airport lounge, I might soil it, but I certainly wouldn't stop to grab it.
Thus my typical in-flight contemplation of the larger issues--Life, Death and Ordering Another Drink--turned into a dialectic about the viability of "water landings" in general and flotation devices specifically: Had anyone ever survived a water landing, much less deployed his assigned butt-dinghy?
Not really, and never, apparently.
First of all, says Allison Duquette, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the preferred term for a controlled touchdown onto water is a "ditching" rather than a "water landing." This, she adds precisely, is because "planes aren't designed to land on water."
Happily, what planes are designed to do is fly, and they do it extremely well. As United Airlines media relations manager Joe Hopkins told me, "We've never had a ditching in the history of the airlines, dating back to 1926." The airline, he points out, has had daily flights to Hawaii "since May 1, 1947, and never once had to put down over the Pacific." Boeing claims that the risk of being involved in a commercial jet aircraft accident where there are multiple fatalities is approximately one in 3 million; to reach that number, you would have to fly daily for more than 8,200 years.
As spokesman Phil Frame of the National Transportation Safety Board confirms, jet engines "are so reliable that they've virtually eliminated the need to ditch."
To date, there has never been a recorded ditching of a jet plane by an American-operated commercial airline, unless you count celluloid. "They tried it in 'Airport '77' and it worked in that movie," Frame adds. "They tried it in 'Air Force One,' too." That one didn't work out so well.
Airplane ditchings, the harmlessness of gun violence, Hugh Grant's versatility: Hollywood's always overstating something.
The only recorded ditching anywhere involving a commercial jet aircraft was in 1970, Frame adds, when a comparatively small Douglas DC-9 flying for ONA from New York's JFK to St. Martin ran out of fuel. There were 41 survivors, but no report of anyone's floating to safety on a seat cushion: The water was shallow, and they were close enough to shore to swim or be saved by bystanders.
Neither history nor statistical probability dissuades the flight attendants on the estimated 8.3 million American commercial flights that depart each year from taking about six seconds of our time and theirs to remind us of the never-used floating cushions. (For those keeping score at home, that's 13,833 hours dedicated to the apparently futile repetition of irrelevant information, like Mike McCurry's job during the Lewinsky affair.)
US Airways spokesman Dave Castelveter sagely defends the practice as due diligence: The seat cushion "is a safety device that we offer, and we feel it is important to point out all the safety devices onboard. Hopefully [it's] one that we'll never have to use."
American Airlines spokesman John Hotard chimes in with this optimistic thought: "There is always the possibility that one day a commercial airliner may have to ditch at sea in a manner that survivors can get out of the aircraft." Unfortunately, Hotard adds, "history has shown that most commercial aircraft have exploded before any such attempt could be made, or [that] the impact of hitting the water was so great that people were killed instantly."
None of the airlines I spoke to bother to include that information during their safety announcements.
"It's all speculation," says Boeing spokesman John Dern. "If the airplane is out of fuel, the pilots could glide in. If the pilots know that they have to ditch the airplane and have time to prepare for it--jettison the fuel, etc.--I'm told the plane can float for up to an hour, and it should only take a minute and a half to get all the people off."
I realize it can't hurt to know where the emergency doors are located, and may even prove vital to know how they open. But planning to use my seat cushion as a life preserver (which, by the way, the FAA does not test to make sure it actually could, you know, keep a person afloat) still seems no more practical than flapping my arms, and nearly as pointless as reading the in-flight magazine.
I'm forced to wonder whether the airlines' faith in seat cushions isn't merely a psychological placebo. No one would go on record to comment, but I have my suspicions. For one thing, it helps to distract me and my fellow passengers from the distressing unavailability of parachutes. For another, it almost certainly makes digesting a handful of peanuts easier than, say, envisioning my being eviscerated by a fold-down snack tray.
While you are chewing on that, here's something else to consider during a long holding pattern: According to a recent presentation at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association by Gary Capobianco, MA, of Old Dominion University, and Thanos Patelis, PhD, of the College Board in New York, an examination into the psychological well-being of 15 airplane crash survivors and eight individuals who travel frequently by air and have never been in a crash found that the survivors are in better mental health than non-crash air travelers.
It logically follows, then, that one good way to prevent the poor mental health that results in obsessing over your plane crashing might be to go ahead and crash in a plane.
As a resurgent growth industry, of course, the downside of kamikaze therapy would be that only a minority of the clientele would actually be left to enjoy the relaxing benefits of their brush with the majority's death.
Then again, by undergoing enough such therapy, someday, just someday, maybe I'd finally get to use my seat cushion as a flotation device.