The Daily

Arts & Culture

The Unlikely Event

November 28, 2011 | by

Because I do not want to die in the brawny arms of an industrial-kitchen-fixtures salesman from Tulsa—at least, not one I’ve only just met—I don’t much care for airline travel. During a recent trip from Salt Lake City, my Boeing 757 began to lurch and heave and make dreadful noises. At times we seemed to be in free fall. I caught the look on our veteran flight attendant’s face as she rushed by: it was genuine fear. During one particularly terrifying plunge, I felt the brawny fingers of that kitchen-fixtures salesman inching toward me, tugging at my sleeve. I needed an escape. I reached into the seat pocket in front of me.

At 33,000 feet, and falling, we are presented with roughly the same options as on earth. First, we get the in-flight magazine’s glossy parade of petit bourgeois distraction. But, face it, when your plane is going down, what good is a recipe for a quick and easy hake with hazelnuts and capers? For those seeking something more directly relevant, there’s the Sartre-esque barf bag. But for those of us who occupy that metaphysical middle ground between the in-flight magazine and the barf bag, there’s the airline safety card.

As everyone knows, the story contained in this pamphlet has little to do with anything resembling the truth. If shit goes down, if that horrifying alarm is sounded, will your fellow passengers really calmly place oxygen masks over their faces? Will that crazy lady sitting next to you inflate her life jacket in a quiet and orderly fashion? (“Put it on as you would a waistcoat,” a 1930s British Imperial Airways card advises its clientele.) In the history of aviation, has any plane ditched over the north Atlantic, leaving its passengers floating in the mountainous, frigid waves of the open ocean with serene expressions on their faces? Airline safety cards aren’t instructional guides, they are works of fantastic imagination.

This isn’t meant to denigrate the safety card. On the contrary, if ever there were an occasion for bold revisions of reality, surely the art of airline crisis is it. The form itself abhors strict realism. A 1992 cross-cultural study conducted at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University determined that people prefer graphic illustrations instead of photography on airline safety cards. Photos, the study claimed, are inevitably full of distracting detail, or “visual noise.” Hence the safety-card aesthetic: spare, noiseless projections that maintain a zenlike neutrality to the chaos and horror of the actual event. It comes as no surprise that these drawings are always a centimeter away from completely missing the point. According to the 1992 study, European passengers are more apt to correctly identify an image of a high-heeled shoe, whereas Americans, a more homely bunch, are more apt likely to classify the high-heel simply as “a shoe”—the consequences of this misidentification can be tragic. In plane crashes and minimalist art, every detail matters.

The best airline-safety-card artists know how to amplify these details without creating too much noise. They are, after all, artists. They work within and bend the conventions of their form by playing with allusions to earlier work. Take, for example, a current US Airways safety card that portrays the conventional water flotation scene. We see a beautiful woman, with lush red hair, floating effortlessly, gazing ahead in an attitude of easeful melancholy. The airline artist has recruited Dante Rossetti’s 1877 Mary Magdalene, with perhaps an ironic nod to Botticelli’s Venus, as the heroine of our worst-case scenario. Thus the “fallen woman” motif is reimagined in the most urgent terms: this airline Magdalene is a woman who has quite literally fallen. And this is where we find her, floating in limbo, clutching a lily-white life preserver to her breast (instead of a vase, as in the 1877 portrait). Like Rossetti’s romantic Pre-Raphaelite Magdalene, this woman’s lowly state serves only to magnify her elemental beauty. Here she is, Our Lady of the Plane Crash. “I will make you fishers of men,” says the Christ. “We will rescue you in any corner of the globe,” says a Pan Am safety card. The fallen woman will not remain cast away forever—and, if we follow her lead, the artist assures us, neither will we. It is a pretty vision of earthly salvation.

The artist behind a current AeroMexico safety card is not convinced. In an echo of The Son of Man, the 1964 painting by Belgian Surrealist René Magritte, the AeroMexico man is rendered in realistic detail—from rolled up sleeves to tousled hair—all of which is, however, a set up for the darkly comic punch line: the man has no face. This bit of surrealistic surgery, more than the yellow life preserver, is what we remember. It is plain to us that this creepily inanimate son of man is, in struggling to preserve his life, in some sense already dead.

Another current airline-safety card riffs on Hopper’s 1942 painting, Nighthawks, and imagines the conventional post-crash scene as a variation on the loneliness-within-a-group motif:

Back in the fifties, safety-card artists worked with a lighter touch. A Qantas Empire Airways safety card, drawn in the wink-and-grin style of a men’s magazine cartoon, depicts a sporting fellow leaning over the side of a lifeboat, flirting with a long, lean, blonde mermaid, much to the annoyance of his wife. Other life-raft images from the period feature a cast of dapper country clubbers reclining, puffing on pipes, scanning menus as smirking fish and seagulls breeze by. A Lufthansa card shows a lifeboat packed full of delicious foods, wine, and a fishing rod.

Is it possible that in the golden age of aviation even the crashes were glamorous? What are we to make of the safety card that says, “Life vests are fashionable and quite handsomely tailored.” Certainly something has been lost. A Pan Am Boeing B-377 card gives escape directions with reference to “the ladies’ powder room,” “the coat rack,” “spiral staircase,” and “cocktail lounge.” And if we were wondering about the pilot, well, rest assured, he’s a stud. “Remember,” the card tells passengers, “that while the captain may have played the genial host under normal conditions, his authority is absolute.” In this sexy environment, it somehow isn’t surprising that the safety card tells passengers, who find their plane going down, to “loosen your tie ... but keep all your clothes on.”

It’s easy to get nostalgic for an era of flight before we were forced to stand barefoot and humbled before the gropings of uniformed agents, long before the time when our fellow passengers occasionally tried to kill us. But it turns out that the fifties and sixties, safety-card whimsy was designed to lighten the widespread fears of that era, of a population still new to flight.

For all the old cards may have had in terms of sex appeal, they often lacked in tact. They were textually expansive; often, they said too much. In order to justify the need for oxygen masks, one safety card helpfully noted that modern aircraft fly at “very high altitudes.” A Canadair card from the early seventies boasted that its lifeboats were “seaworthy, with great buoyancy.” This was in contrast to the plane itself which would, the card promised, sink before your eyes. An old United card offers this uniquely discomfiting warning: “move out of this plane fast. There is a fire-danger any time a landing is other than normal—particularly when the airplane structure is damaged.” No mention is made about staying calm. An Australian card confesses that the only means of escape involves kicking the window exit open with all of your might. VIASA, Venezuela’s former national airline, urges people not to be anxious when the alarm is sounded. It asks passengers to “keep your muscles taut to absorb the sudden impact.” Another card urges people to grab their warmest clothes before they jump into the sea. An Air France card directs passengers to the closest axe—no further directions are given.

But even in these cards there are some moments of genuine pathos. Like the best of the contemporary cards, which have almost entirely done away with text, the effect was achieved through a drawing. A late sixties Gulf Air card portrays a well-tailored Marvel Comics–style man, stalwart and square jawed, prepared to meet his fate with a ducklike dignity.

But there is something to this art form beyond the drawings or texts. The last page of many safety cards is blank, which would be unremarkable had they not also included this caption: This Panel Intentionally Left Blank. Thus ends the artifice. Here, on this page, there are no melancholic passengers or dreamboat captains, no stern warnings, only a blank screen upon which you and I may project … what, exactly? What are we to make of this combination of blankness and intent? Seasick and weary, Melville’s Ishmael knew all about it. Whiteness, he said, “strikes more of panic to the soul than the redness which affrights in blood.”

Is it by its indefiniteness that it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the Milky Way? Or is it that whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows—a colorless all-color of atheism from which we shrink?

This horrible dumb blankness, full of meaning, this colorless all-color of atheism, this drab charnel house within our hearts, yea, this universal white shroud, is the airline safety card’s intentionally blank page. It pictures not an unlikely event but the only one about which there is absolute certainty.

Avi Steinberg is the author of Running the Books, a memoir of his adventures as a prison librarian, recently out in paperback.

64 COMMENTS

37 Comments

« Older Comments
  1. Elaine Blair | November 28, 2011 at 4:14 pm

    Avi Steinberg is a genius.

  2. Facebook Fans | November 29, 2011 at 6:20 am

    Flying over the Atlantic in the early 80’s. I was sat at the front of the plane when the microwave set on fire in the galley kitchen. We dropped about 10,000 feet in milli seconds and had too make a crash landing at some small island ( i think called Porto Santo close to the island of Madeira off the Portugese coast. It took 3 days to get off that bloody island. Never will I forget it!

  3. rob weaver | November 29, 2011 at 10:05 pm

    what a load!

  4. Facebook Fans | November 30, 2011 at 1:32 am

    Rob, Fact not fiction!!

  5. Anne Martin Fletcher | November 30, 2011 at 9:33 am

    As a pilot from the 80’s, I love Steinberg’s humor and art history lesson in the pamphlets I have only evaluated pragmatically. How appropriate that this comes out on the same day as American Airline’s bankruptcy (keep your sense of humor, love of art, and survive).

    On a serious note, it’s great to realize that most passengers do act calmly and heroically in a crisis. Even without my personal experience, you can recall the actions of passengers on United Flight 93 (Sep 11, 2001) and the actions of most of the passengers on US Airways “Miracle on the Hudson” (Jan 15, 2009).

  6. Ddrhl | November 30, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    I have yet to figure out one we saw…in the event of…then there were 4 pictures, one with smoke, one with fire, one with water, and the other with what looked like cheese…do not open the plane door…or maybe it was to open the plane door…anyway…cheese? Seriously?

  7. Beverly Schneider | November 30, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    Avi buoys me in flight through the most frightening of thoughts

  8. heathered | November 30, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    The old french ones are my favorite. Even the 90s ones look so Mod. I make passport holders and slim wallets out of vintage safety cards: http://www.etsy.com/listing/58966766/slim-wallet-airplane-safety-manual

  9. danny bloom | November 30, 2011 at 11:29 pm

    Avi, I have not flown since 1983, in June of that year in Alaska in a DC-3 prop plane I was in a midair fire incident in which the left engine caught fire next to my window, and I was one who had to report it to the pilot up front, and for 20 minutes, on a wing and prayer, we teetered between life and death, with the left engine shut down and the Vietnam vet pilot doing his best to get that fire extinguished, but it took a long 20 minutes, the longest 20 minutes of my life and when we finally landed on a gravel airstrip in Fairbanks, i literally kissed the ground after stepping out, and i have never flown since, PERIOD PERIOD PERIOD, and i will never fly again, despite the fact that i went to Japan in 1991 and Guam in 1996 and Taiwan until now in 2011…..but i am grounded for life, i suffer from PSTD due to this event, MAN WAS NOT MEANT TO FLY, period, each flight is a lottery. ye takes yer chances. Not me, anymore. I am done with flying. and i am a happy man, too. Glad to be alive. I saw DEATH outside that DC3 window and it’s not a pretty picture.

  10. ag | December 1, 2011 at 12:42 am

    Here’s one from an Indian airline featuring a man wearing Rajasthani outfit! http://audreyandthane.wordpress.com/2010/05/05/airline-safety-information-with-indian-flavor/

  11. GZ | December 1, 2011 at 11:34 am

    Best Paris Review blog post in weeks. Thanks Avi. One question: What is a ‘hake’?

  12. Mary Campbell Gallagher, J.D., Ph.D. | December 3, 2011 at 10:03 am

    God bless Avi Steinberg. He’s made me laugh at the experience I fear most–something like undergoing the torture of worst fears in 1984. I only fly Air France, where I can study everyone’s nice clothes, and I still don’t enjoy it.

  13. Ralph Levy | December 3, 2011 at 10:41 pm

    Alas, I didn’t create this most apropos statement, but some anon person
    said: IF GOD HAD MEANT US TO FLY, HE
    WOULD HAVE NEVER CREATED THE RAILWAY.
    Was it Dylan Thomas? Maybe.

  14. Kathleen C Baker | December 4, 2011 at 6:46 am

    A very good article that I enjoyed reading. If one has a fear of flying, a bit of humour on the ‘worst case scenario’ is not a bad thing. Though today with having to be PC, we are less likely to see humorous takes on these situations on board, sadly.

  15. EngineerScotty | December 4, 2011 at 4:53 pm

    I don’t know who said it first, but the in-flight safety instructions from “Chicken Run” seem appropriate:

    “In the event of an emergency, place your head between your knees and kiss your bum goodbye!”

  16. chris g | December 4, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    GZ; a hake is an edible fish, often used in frozen fish monstrosities like fish fingers.

    I was once on a Philippines Airline flight that was having difficulties in a violent storm over a mountain range; I did get a bit worried when i saw the airline steward praying and clutching her rosary beads.

  17. Jason M. | December 4, 2011 at 6:35 pm

    I guess neither the author or any of the readers who commented thus far has ever seen Fight Club:

    http://facweb.cs.depaul.edu/sgrais/images/GraphicsPictures/Fight_Club_Airline_Safety_Card_by_phillipthe2.jpg

  18. suthrnboy | December 4, 2011 at 9:07 pm

    This was covered extensively in Fight Club. Thanks for playing though…

  19. David | December 5, 2011 at 3:25 am

    Much funnier and much more succinctly stated in “Fight Club.”

  20. Ian Campbell | December 5, 2011 at 9:19 am

    For Ralph Levy. Think you will find it was Flanders & Swann

  21. chandu | December 6, 2011 at 1:02 am

    The article is beautiful. The humour is always good at the worst of your times, but the safety card should also need to guide the passenger for appropriate actions

  22. JohnB | December 6, 2011 at 3:14 am

    I understand Air New Zealand requires it cabin crew to be competent swimmers.

  23. Nicola | December 6, 2011 at 11:30 am

    brilliant

  24. mike | December 6, 2011 at 11:51 am

    I have been in 2 crash landings and one flight on a small prop shuttle where the wings iced up like popsicles. Still, I love to fly and always try and get the seat by the escape door. Despite the risks, flying is still much safer than driving.

  25. Minty Ness | December 6, 2011 at 9:56 pm

    Yo danny bloom, I hope you kissed the pilot too!

  26. VagueInVancouver | December 6, 2011 at 11:21 pm

    So what happened to the plane. Did you survive?

  27. Bonnie | December 7, 2011 at 7:55 am

    Lovely, funny essay!

  28. jay | December 7, 2011 at 2:47 pm

    Back in the ’70s, there was a Mad magazine issue with a pull-out airline safety card that you could surreptitiously ‘place in the seat back in front of you’, it looked very much like the real thing, but showed things like fuel tanks and the plane breaking apart in frightening ways.

  29. tracey | December 7, 2011 at 8:27 pm

    terrific piece! i read part of it before a flight out of denver today – and during this flight, when our A330 missed its approach in a low ceiling and circled back for a second try (this with the flight attendants having been seated the entire last 25 minutes of the flight due to turbulence), i kept wishing i’d have read the rest of your article. happy to say i just did! thanks for finding humor and design in this most unlikely of documents.

  30. Cecilia | December 7, 2011 at 11:22 pm

    Why is the last page typically left blank? So that people who come from a culture which reads from right to left don’t try to read the pamphlet backwards. (It’s not a great answer, but I would be surprised if that isn’t the original logic. The new logic is that it is a tradition.)

    Why is there a message saying that the page was intentionally left blank? So that people don’t assume that this was a printing error, and think that there were further instructions which somehow did not make it onto their card.

  31. Arthur Williamson | December 9, 2011 at 5:07 pm

    Ralph Levy wonders who said “IF GOD HAD MEANT US TO FLY, HE WOULD HAVE NEVER CREATED THE RAILWAY.
    Was it Dylan Thomas?”.

    A similar thought was expressed by the Sarah Miles character in the movie Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines.

  32. Dick Jordan | December 13, 2011 at 11:13 am

    Well written! Bravo!

  33. Fly | December 13, 2011 at 8:54 pm

    Coupled together with 9/11 and watching the behavior of the flight attendants these days is more than enough to keep me and many I know out of the air permanently!

  34. Tayce Davison | February 3, 2012 at 7:12 pm

    So talented!! Thanks for making me smile today :)

  35. Bathroom Remodel Los Angeles l Kitchen Remodel Los Angeles l Home Remodeling Los Angeles l Kitchen Remodeling Contractors Los Angeles l Los Angeles Remodeling Contractor l Solar Panel Install Los Angeles l Residential Contractors in Los Angeles l Los ange | September 8, 2012 at 7:52 pm

    Thanks for any other informative site. The place else may just I am getting that kind of info written in such a perfect manner? I’ve a venture that I’m simply now operating on, and I’ve been at the glance out for such info.

  36. Freqnsy | March 20, 2013 at 9:49 am

    You can look at my collection of maps airline safety. http://freqnsy.ru/ You can also get some of them.

  37. Phil | August 3, 2013 at 4:42 pm

    I always thought Nick and Fletcher from Chicken Run summed up my prospects:

    In the quite likely event of an emergency, put your head between your knees and–Kiss your bum goodbye!

27 Pingbacks

  1. [...] _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ via Paris Review (vale a leitura) Barebone Shuttle SN78SH7 | Phenom II X4 965BE | 2x2GB G.Skill PK 1066 | Intel [...]

  2. [...] Aircraft Safety Card Art document.write(''); Interesting article from The Paris Review…….. http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2…-not-drowning/ [...]

  3. [...] The fine art of airplane safety cards. [...]

  4. [...] We see a beautiful woman, with lush red hair, floating effortlessly, gazing ahead in an attitude of easeful melancholy. The airline artist has recruited Dante Rossetti’s 1877 Mary Magdalene, with perhaps an ironic nod to Botticelli’s Venus, as the heroine of our worst-case scenario. Thus the “fallen woman” motif is reimagined in the most urgent terms: this airline Magdalene is a woman who has quite literally fallen. And this is where we find her, floating in limbo, clutching a lily-white life preserver to her breast (instead of a vase, as in the 1877 portrait). Like Rossetti’s romantic Pre-Raphaelite Magdalene, this woman’s lowly state serves only to magnify her elemental beauty. Here she is, Our Lady of the Plane Crash. “I will make you fishers of men,” says the Christ. “We will rescue you in any corner of the globe,” says a Pan Am safety card. The fallen woman will not remain cast away forever—and, if we follow her lead, the artist assures us, neither will we. It is a pretty vision of earthly salvation. [...]

  5. [...] Safety Pamphlets Posted on November 30, 2011 by Jordan /* */ In a Paris Review article titled The Unlikely Event, Avi Steinberg dissects the humble airline emergency [...]

  6. [...] Bookmarked Paris Review – The Unlikely Event, Avi Steinberg [...]

  7. [...] I am spending the month of December circling the planet on aircraft, this article from The Paris Review resonated with me… tweetmeme_url = [...]

  8. [...] The Unlikely Event: The Art of Airplane Safety Cards.  [...]

  9. [...] is a brilliant article about airline safety cards — “The Unlikely Event.” Anyone who plies the airways on aircraft will enjoy this [...]

  10. [...] the unlikely event … that airline safety cards can be [...]

  11. [...] Read More>> GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); [...]

  12. [...] Speak of drowning, not waving: the art and poetry of airline safety cards. “Put it on as you would a waistcoat.” [Paris [...]

  13. [...] Paris Review – The Unlikely Event, Avi Steinberg. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in [...]

  14. [...] Speak of drowning, not waving: the art and poetry of airline safety cards. “Put it on as you would a waistcoat.” [Paris [...]

  15. [...] Speak of drowning, not waving: the art and poetry of airline safety cards. “Put it on as you would a waistcoat.” [Paris [...]

  16. HTMLGIANT says:

    [...] the Paris Review blog, Avi Steinberg writes about the art of air travel [...]

  17. [...] The Art of Not Drowning (Click this link, if only to look at the pictures). [...]

  18. [...] write, and in fact, found each example of “bad” writing to be clever and captivating. The art of airplane safety cards Fascinating “review” of airline safety cards from an art criticism perspective, makes [...]

  19. [...] 7. Additional travel reading, Avi Shapiro is wonderful in Paris Review (insert your own George Plimpton joke here) on airline safety cards: http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2011/11/28/the-art-of-not-drowning/ [...]

  20. [...] Unlikely Event" Airline Safety cards document.write(''); This article talks about airline safety cards from the beginning of commercial flying and how they have evolved [...]

  21. [...] Avi Steinberg on The Art of the Airline Safety Card [...]

  22. [...] The Art of Not Drowning Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post.   [...]

  23. Longreads says:

    […] See also: “The Unlikely Event.” The Paris Review, Nov. 28, 2011 […]

Leave a Comment