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.