Ditch the Life Jackets

If the absurd theatre of aviation safety could do without its props, air travel would be much less expensive

Counterpoints Transport

Flying is getting expensive – especially for the airlines. The latest rises in fuel prices have massively affected profits. So the decision by Emirates, the Gulf carrier, to save money by scrapping in-flight magazines sounds sensible at first.

The logic goes like this: all those glossy ads stuffed into the seat pocket weigh about a kilo. If there’s one magazine per seat on a big plane such as the new Airbus A380 – which can carry 550 people – that’s a lot of kilos. A lighter plane requires less jet fuel to go the same distance. If you get rid of the mags you can save several thousand dollars worth of kerosene on every flight.

But if you really wanted to save weight, or give your aircraft several hundred more miles of flying range, it would make more sense to jettison all the paraphernalia associated with emergency landing on water. Life jackets and inflatable rafts weigh much more than all that glossy paper – probably several tonnes for a large airliner.

This sounds crazy. Or at least like a measure that would doom the passengers on any flight that crashed on water. However, the truth is that on the rare occasions when a modern airliner crashes into the sea, most people on board are doomed whether or not their plane carries rafts and life jackets.

That is because all those reassuring illustrations on the safety card, the ones showing your plane floating ­gently on the ocean surface while everyone bobs off in comfy-­looking yellow rafts, are pure fiction. What really happens when a large aircraft hits the water is very ­different.

Invariably one wingtip strikes the water before the other one, and even at the slowest possible speed of descent, the impact causes the plane to cartwheel and break up. The various bits then sink. As in the Comoros islands crash in 1996, the surviving passengers are likely to be those who are not wearing life jackets and can get out of the wreckage most quickly.

Indeed, in modern aviation history there have been no cases of large airliners putting down on water and remaining intact long enough for anything like the orderly evacuation shown on landing cards to take place. (It is different with small planes, which have greater structural integrity – here, water-kit makes sense.)

Life jackets and escape rafts are a vestige of the long-­vanished golden age of flying boats and propeller planes. Today their only real function is as a prop in the absurdist theatre of aviation safety. First the cabin crew frightens you by reminding you of dangers you probably weren’t even thinking of, such as drowning; then it reassures you that the airline has thought of everything by providing a life jacket.

It’s a show that comes at the cost of the genuine safety margin that would be provided by extra fuel in the tanks. You’re quite right to ignore it and to read your in-flight magazine instead – if there is one.