Warning Fatigue: Chatter and the Stress of Flying

Matt Freeman DNP, MPH

A trip through the terminal at Galeão/Antonio Carlos Jobim Airport in Rio de Janeiro is mundane, if not a bit grim… unless  you start listening. The steaming, sultry, deep voice of former newscaster Iris Lettieri is used to make announcements. Since 1977, Lettieri’s passionate voice has been used in Rio, and has since expanded to other airports in Brazil.

Every time I have flown in Brazil, I have been caught off guard by the sense of mystery and romance in her recorded voice.

If you have never been to Brazil, or have forgotten Lettieri’s voice, this NPR interview will introduce or reacquaint you. You will not be disappointed.

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=8976813

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Iris Lettieri is the exception.

Amid the many stresses of air travel, the overuse of announcements is grating, counterproductive, and exacerbates an already anxiety-producing experience.

Psychologists in the United Kingdom analyzed how repetitive announcements result in “warning fatigue.” Professor Judy Edworthy and Plymouth University described how listeners will “habituate” to a stimulus, and it will eventually be ignored.

There is a reasonably simple principle of neuroscience behind this: action potentials from a constant stimulus will decrease over time. As a physiology professor taught me as an undergraduate: this is why you do not smell your own perfume or cologne after a while.

 

Looped, Pre-Recorded Announcements

Edworthy’s argument is perhaps most evident in pre-recorded announcements. Journalists from The Telegraph identified twenty-seven public safety announcements during a 30-minute period at a London railway station. These included messages about using the handrails, using an elevator instead of an escalator if one has suitcases, and so on.

A spokeswoman for the railway company said that the messages were “for the safety of our passengers because we have had accidents.”

Lisa Lavia, a representative of the Noise Abatement Society, felt differently. “…the public really hate these announcements but feel powerless to do anything about them. But as the science is now showing, these nightmare messages are no longer just a nuisance–they don’t even work.”

 

Relevance

Perhaps the most baffling of looped, pre-recorded announcements advises passengers in US airports of restrictions on liquids and gels in hand luggage. This announcement is played repeatedly in the “sterile” area of the airport, after passengers have passed through a security checkpoint.

The irrelevance tacitly advises listeners, “These announcements do not apply to you. You have nothing to gain by listening.”

Anything significant, such as “the airport is now on fire,” would run the risk of being lost amid the frequent and meaningless other announcements.”

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Mass Confusion

During my first job after college, I attended a workshop on dealing with crowds and lines. One of the core lessons was: never, ever shout instructions at a large group. The typical responses are:

“What was that?”

“What did he say?

In a check-in hall at an airport, yelling “Anybody going to Chicago?” will likely create mass confusion. “Did he say Chicago? Was that our flight?” Then someone will yell from the back, “Chicago! That’s us!” The commotion escalates.

It is far easier to walk along side the crowd and ask, “Are you headed to Chicago?” Or, perhaps more productively, “Where are you headed today?” Although the illusion is that it might take longer, it is actually far more expeditious. One can identify the Chicago-bound passengers and direct them to the right place—calmly, personably. In the process, you might find that you have people in the wrong queue for the wrong airline and correct that problem too.

 

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has developed a reputation for so-called “barkers,” who shout instructions at groups of people waiting in line. The stressful experience of airport security is exacerbated by a barrage of repeated and blurred shouts.

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I recall one security checkpoint that was strictly for passengers transferring off of international flights. “Folks, you are about to enter a security checkpoint!” shouted the “barker.” It would be hard to imagine that anyone would be confused by the scene before them: x-ray machines, metal detectors, body scanners. After all, everyone in the queue had just gone through the same experience several hours prior. The remaining instructions were garbled, and certainly unhelpful to those who did not speak English.

I witnessed one TSA agent go against the trend. She smiled, stayed calm, and politely gestured to those who did not speak English to remove their coats and shoes. Unsurprisingly, she had the line moving far more quickly and without agitation. Furthermore, other passengers witnessed her polite demonstration, so the message propagated down the line. Without words and with a gentle smile, she silently had everyone on their way.

 

Shame and Admonishment

“We have a lot of material to cover today.” I remember far too many teachers and professors who would start off their classes with this warning. It was never helpful. After all, the professor wrote the syllabus, so it was his or her idea as to how much material would be covered in the designated instructional time. The initial pressure of “we have a lot to cover today,” just added stress without discernable benefit. What could students have done differently?

The same applies to “this is a very full flight.” This announcement precedes just about every commercial flight I have taken in or to the United States in the past few years. It is an introduction to the flight by admonishing and shaming passengers who have done nothing wrong; they just happen to be flying that day.

“We are expecting a very full flight” adds the same stress as, “We have a lot to cover today.” There is nothing I can do differently if the flight is full or empty: my hand luggage is the same size; my own height and weight have not changed. All I can expect is that I will feel perhaps more cramped than usual.

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Asking for the Impossible

Boarding is invariably the most stressful time for passengers and crew. There is the struggle to fit everyone’s hand luggage in a small space, find seats, relocate families who have been separated, and still get the plane out on time.

Instead of a self-regulating environment, passengers are bombarded with instructions to “step into [their] row” thereby leaving the aisle open for other passengers. Amid the chaos of fitting 150 people into a small space, the announcement just creates noise. If passengers self-regulate: moving and accommodating for one another, they need not pause to listen to an unnecessary announcement.

There is also the impossibility of “stepping into your row.” In a crowded single-aisle aircraft, one has to be patient as everyone else shuffles themselves and their belongings. Stepping into one’s row is not always an option. The announcement thus creates more disruption, and it asks passengers to accomplish the impossible.

 

Significance versus Fine Print

Gate agents and flight attendants read from announcements from smartphones, booklets, or from computer printouts. The longwinded nature of these announcements makes the fundamental error of mixing marketing, regulatory, and logistical information with the same cadence, length, and mixed in a single string of data. There is little sense of priority, and much of the information is superfluous.

 

Category Example Priority Can this be excluded?
Regulatory “Children under the age of 15 may not sit in an exit row.” Important
It is a federal law, but does it need to be announced?
Maybe. The gate agents and flight attendants could check this without an announcement.
Logistical “The flight time will be 3 hours, 25 minutes.” Intermediate relevance:
useful information for most passengers
Maybe
Logistical “We accept credit and debit cards with the Visa, MasterCard, and American Express logo.” Low relevance.
A passenger attempting to purchase something in cash might be informed of this only if such a situation arose. Why announce it?
Yes
Marketing “We are a founding member of the Star Alliance.” Minimal relevance
since passengers already purchased their tickets and boarded the flight.
Yes

 

Parsimony

Federal law (FAR Part § 121.317) requires that illumination of the “fasten seatbelt” sign have an accompanying oral instruction. This is not necessarily a bad idea, particularly for passengers who have vision impairments, or who might not speak English.

In reasonable situations, a crew member just says, “Seatbelts, please.” On a flight to Germany, the American captain just said, “Seatbelts, please. Bitte anschellen.” Four words. An unequivocal message is delivered in both languages, and there is compliance with US law.

Sadly, the four word announcements are rare. I often fly to and from Tel Aviv. The airline I often fly has a blaring, pre-recorded announcement. A woman’s voice at 10 out of 10 volume arouses one from sleep on an overnight flight saying, “Ladies and gentleman, the Captain has turned on the ‘fasten seatbelt’ sign. Please return to your seat and fasten your seatbelt.” This is followed by a Hebrew-speaking crewmember repeating the same message. Twenty words in English followed by 16 in Hebrew. The length of the announcement detracts from the core message: “seatbelt.”

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Redundant Information

In airplanes with video equipment, most airlines present safety information through a video presentation. These films are reviewed by the FAA, and the language has to be specific to meet regulatory requirements. As ridiculous as it seems, the law is clear that passengers must be shown how to buckle and unbuckle a seatbelt. (The idea is that airplane seatbelts operate differently than those in cars.)

Problems arise when crew restate information already in the film. This is particularly true of announcements regarding mobile phones and smoking. One could argue that this information needs to be reinforced to ensure adherence. “Nobody watches the film, so we have to announce it.” Another option is never presented: during the mandatory walk-throughs or “compliance checks,” the crew could just ask passengers individually to correct any reclined seats or obstructive luggage.

Instead of worrying about inattention to the video or announcements, why not just correct the safety problems as they occur?

 

Goal Setting

“Did you not hear the announcement?” is no longer a reasonable argument. There are so many announcements that one can easily become sidetracked. Furthermore, flying is tiring, rules vary, and some airlines and security checkpoints are stricter than others.

The TSA staff or airline crew would be wise to ask, “What is our goal?” Is the goal to have one’s announcements heeded, or is the goal to ensure that passengers are safe?

 

Moving Forward

The first question is, “How much of this information needs to be conveyed?” Aside from federally-mandated announcements, air carriers would be wise to explore passenger comprehension. During the roughly 60 minutes it takes from beginning boarding to reaching the runway, how many announcements are made? Of those announcements, what is the overall comprehension level?

Some of these issues are hard to measure. One cannot conduct a “placebo controlled” study to determine if repeated overhead announcements about leaving luggage unattended actually lead to greater attention to security. The decision to cease the announcements has to be based on principles of neuropsychology: repeated announcements will be ignored over time.

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Dialing it Down. How Can We Limit the Cacophony?

Since the “announcement culture” is ingrained in American air travel, it may take scientific analyses to argue for fewer announcements.
1. Measure Passenger Stress

Passenger stress can be assessed through psychological inventory or biological measures. Researchers could evaluate the magnitude of passenger stress as a function of the number of announcements (safety, logistical, and marketing.)

 

2. Measure Passenger Adherence

Some announcements are federally-mandated, but one could experiment with optional announcements.

  1. Conduct a trial in which one TSA checkpoint has an agent announces repeatedly that laptops must be removed from hand luggage; make no announcement in another checkpoint. See how many passengers remove their laptops between the two lines.
  2. Ask airline crews to measure the number of passengers who attempt to pay in cash as a function of a pre-flight announcement. Does the announcement actually affect adherence?

 

3. Measure Passenger Satisfaction

Airlines routinely collect extensive survey data. It would be easy to determine if passengers have greater satisfaction with their airport experience based on stressful announcements like, “This is a very full flight.” An air carrier could compare satisfaction surveys from flights where such language is prohibited to the status quo.
There are solutions to a calmer, quieter trip both on the ground and in the air. Although it would be pleasant to have the rich voice of Iris Lettieri all over the world, there is an obvious need to “dial down” the barrage of announcements.

 

 

References

Copping J. & Ljunggren H. Annoyed by public address messages? Now experts say they don’t even work. The Telegraph. 2 October 2011.

 

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©2016

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