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Originally published Tuesday, January 29, 2013 at 11:32 AM

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Travel Wise/ Want to be extra safe when you fly? There’s a school for that

A British Airways safety-awareness course takes participants through a smoke-filled airline cabin and other airborne misadventures.

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Have you ever wondered exactly why airlines dim the lights upon landing, making you grope to find the overhead light just as you were about to finish your Sudoku? (Hint: It’s not to save electricity.)

Or why it’s so important to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others?

Or if the brace position for an emergency landing really matters?

If you’re a bit of an airline nerd like me, then you might have been curious. Or maybe you’re the cautious kind, the kind who wants to have every possible advantage the next time there’s a “Miracle on the Hudson” emergency landing.

British Airways has just the thing: the BA Flight Safety Awareness Course (, a modified version of the same training that flight crews go through after they’re hired and then once a year thereafter. Even if you’re not the pessimistic or overly cautious type, it’s a fascinating way to spend a day in London.

You get to jump down an emergency slide. And if you’ve ever wanted to pull the inflation cord on one of those airplane life vests, well this is your chance.

You also get to evacuate a cabin filled with “smoke” (it’s the kind used in a theater or rock concert, but does the trick). You’ll practice the fine points of the “brace position.”

And best of all, you understand why some of the more obscure procedures and safety warnings are part of the flight experience.

Oxygen mask

You’ve heard it over and over: Put on your own oxygen mask before helping those around you. But the safety demos never tell you why that’s so important.

The reason? You might only have 15 or 20 seconds in the event of a cabin decompression, during which all oxygen would be sucked out of the plane (and your lungs), before you’d experience confusion and a euphoric “stoned” state, at which point you might forget everything you heard during the safety demo (if in fact you listened, which you probably didn’t). In 30 to 45 seconds you’d probably pass out.

So it’s important to act quickly. (I think that if the standard safety announcement explained some of these fine points then people might put down their newspapers.)

Andy and Diane, our instructors, also explained what else to expect during a sudden decompression: a burning smell from the oxygen canisters, severe vibration, a rapid descent (typically a drop of 20,000 feet in just 3 or 4 minutes), and an automated announcement telling you what to expect (because, obviously, the crew would have their own masks on and wouldn’t be able to communicate with passengers).

The proper brace position

Some of the finer points of flight safety may seem particularly arcane, but there’s a reason for every detail. If you’ve ever bothered, for example, to look at the safety card in the seat back pocket, you may have noticed that the correct brace position is to put your hands on your head, but not in just any slipshod fashion (and definitely not with the fingers locked together).

See how the illustration shows one hand over the other? Is that just arbitrary? No. Should something fall on you during a crash landing, you want to protect at least one hand (preferably the one you write with), because you’ll need it to unbuckle your seat belt when it’s safe to do so. Your other hand is in that position to provide some protection to your “strong” hand, which will be doing the unbuckling.

Why does “red” mean “go”?

And what’s with that escape path lighting along the floor? Why would red lights indicate an exit? Shouldn’t they be green (as in “go”) instead?

Ever see taillights along the motorway in a fog, Andy asked? They’re red because they show up better in a smoke-filled cabin. And indeed, it’s true, as we learned when our “cabin” became a soupy fog.

A macabre tidbit

Next time you get on a plane, take note of the handles by the door, just inside the plane. They’re grab handles, but why? Well, in a panicked emergency evacuation, when the flight attendants are manning the exit door, passengers, in their mad rush to get off, have a tendency to push them out of the way, sometimes all the way down the slide.

The handles are there to make sure that the flight attendants stay on the plane if that’s what they need to do.

Why don’t airlines tell us all this?

I left the course thinking that more passengers would listen to the preflight safety demo if airlines shared some of this insider information, maybe mixing it up from time to time so that the demo doesn’t get overly long and cause more people to tune out.

On one flight, the demo might include the finer points of opening the over-wing exits. On another flight, more information about why it’s so important to put your oxygen mask on first (and quickly) before helping others.

More passengers would probably do what they’re told in an emergency if they knew the reasons behind these rules (and time and time again, in emergencies, passengers do not listen, do the wrong thing and become victims).

Speaking of the whys, just why do airlines dim the cabin lights during nighttime takeoffs and landings? To help adjust your eyes to the dark (either inside a smoke-filled cabin or on a darkened runway).

And why do some airlines ask that you keep your shoes on (except high heels, which can tear the slide) when taking off and landing? Because the runway might be burning hot after you jump down the slide.

While it’s doubtful airlines will ever add these extra details to their preflight safety drills, the main thing I left the course with was a better respect for the thought that has gone into airline safety over the years, as each crash and emergency landing contributes to collective knowledge.

And I have even more respect for flight attendants, who, as we know, are primarily there for no other reason than our safety.

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