Those small, lonely laminated cards have to provide a tremendous amount of safety information to millions of passengers

Created back in the 1920s, airline safety cards were text-based documents that gave you basic life-saving information. But by the 1950s, the cards began to show a creative mix of text and graphics to help get their life-saving message across.

Airline safety cards have also developed a cult following. Decommissioned cards are often sold online to card enthusiasts. Buyers are often aviation enthusiasts, but some people collect the cards for their historical appeal or to display as art. And of course, there are even books devoted to airline safety cards, tracing their history and showing how different airlines’ safety cards have changed over time.

Read on to learn everything you’ve always wanted to know about these fascinating little cards.

Cards reflect different time periods and cultures

Airline safety cards offer a snapshot of the time period in which they were created. For instance, airline safety cards from the 1950s depicted the graphic design elements and typography popular during the Cold War era. Female passengers are shown in heels with short, neat hairstyles, while male passengers are drawn wearing business suits. By the 1970s, more photos were being used to illustrate safety protocols but show hair and apparel popular when disco was all the rage.

Travel abroad and you’re likely to see airline safety cards that also depict passengers and crew members wearing clothing, jewelry and hairstyles representative of their airline’s culture and ethnicities. In addition to highlighting a country’s culture, safety cards often feature each airline’s corporate culture by incorporating company colors, graphics, and typography into the design.

Each card depicts a specific plane model

If you’ve ever wondered why airline safety cards all look a bit different, it’s due to each plane model’s unique layout. Different layouts make it necessary to create customized cards that accurately depict each plane’s emergency exit door and lavatory locations. Do you have life vests on board or are your seat cushions what you’ll be using if your plane lands in the water? Variances can also make information about safety items like floatation device location and carry-on storage a bit different.

Photo Courtesy: [Kai Pilger/Unsplash]

Nobody reads them

Uh oh. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), only one-third of all passengers ever bother to read the airline safety card. The FAA has suggested that airlines come up with different ways to entice people to pull that cute little card out of the seat pocket.

It’s getting harder and harder for airlines to get us to either watch the safety video or read those handy-dandy little cards. There are lots of reasons people seem to be zoning out. Focusing on finding our seats, getting comfortable in our seats, locating our seatbelt or figuring out how to jam our over-stuffed carry-on luggage under the seat seem to distract all of us from reviewing important safety information.

There may be another reason we aren’t paying attention: personal electronic devices. In 2013, the FAA approved the use of reading on our phones, computers, tablets, and e-readers during all stages of the flight. Aviation experts believe this was a major turning point that resulted in passengers losing interest in reviewing important safety information.

Airline safety cards have also developed a cult following. Decommissioned cards are often sold online to card enthusiasts. Buyers are often aviation enthusiasts, but some people collect the cards for their historical appeal or to display as art.

A passenger was thrown off the plane for not reviewing the airline’s safety information

Air New Zealand decided to use discipline. In May 2019, a passenger sitting in the emergency exit row who refused to watch the safety video or read the airline safety card was removed from the plane. “The video started playing and the flight attendant held up the card, but the woman started looking down at her book,” one passenger told Stuff.co.nz.

A flight attendant gently asked the woman to pay attention since she was sitting in the emergency exit row. The passenger responded to the flight attendant’s request by defiantly putting her fingers in her ears. The pilot returned to the gate where the passenger and her husband were greeted by the police.

The cards aren’t easy to understand

Due to a variety of different graphics and layouts, airline safety cards aren’t easy to decipher. A 2013 study presented during the FAA’s International Fire & Cabin Safety Research Conference revealed most people can’t figure out what the cards are asking them to do. When shown 41 different airline safety cards, seasoned travelers could only comprehend about 70% of what they saw while only 18% of first-time flyers understood what the heck their safety cards were trying to say.

“Neither series [of airline safety card] were able to breach the acceptance thresholds [of understanding].” – the FAA’s David Weed explaining if airline safety cards with photos or graphics are better

According to the FAA’s David Weed, passengers were shown cards with both photos and illustrations. Surprisingly, study participants had a harder time figuring out the cards with the photos. “Neither series [of airline safety card] were able to breach the acceptance thresholds [of understanding].”

Several aspects of the cards were confusing. Some participants thought the diagram showing the removal of high heels before exiting by the emergency slide meant that passengers had to take off all of their clothes. Another diagram informing passengers that smoking in the lavatory was prohibited was interpreted as “smoking is only prohibited while in the lavatory.”

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