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United rolls out new safety video aimed at distracted passengers: NPR

On the set of United Airlines’ new onboard safety video in Montreal, Canada.

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On the set of United Airlines’ new onboard safety video in Montreal, Canada.

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MONTREAL — The cast and crew on this soundstage are at the mercy of a little blue ball.

It’s about the size of a billiard ball. He rolls, bounces and floats through a Rube Goldberg machine – a complicated chain reaction that leads the viewer from scene to scene in United Airlines’ new onboard safety video.

This is live action, not CGI. And the little blue ball doesn’t always cooperate.

“For the moment, no one in this building wants to do a Rube Goldberg again,” laughs director Karim Zariffa. And he’s not totally joking. Even after the airline employees who make up the cast deliver a perfect performance, Zariffa says, “you still have to land the ball where it needs to be.”

United will hope a few very long days on set will be worth it. Airlines are constantly fighting for the attention of their passengers, who are distracted by their own screens. It’s a constant challenge to get these passengers to focus on the required safety briefing before every commercial flight – thousands of times a day, every day of the year.

United is releasing a new inflight safety video that the airline hopes will capture the attention of distracted passengers, even during multiple viewings.

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“The safest safety video is the one that people will want to watch even on your 45th viewing,” said Meg Mitchell, creative director at United, who helped oversee production of the safety video that the airline unveiled Thursday.

There isn’t much room for creativity in the wording of onboard safety videos, Mitchell said, because they are largely dictated by federal regulators. So the airline focused on making the video as visually interesting as possible, even for frequent travelers.

“People are starting to disconnect,” Mitchell said in an interview. “And so we wanted something that would feel like you could watch it over and over and still want to pay attention to.”

Crew members set up more than 1,000 dominoes on the set of United’s new safety video.

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Crew members set up more than 1,000 dominoes on the set of United’s new safety video.

Courtesy of United Airlines

If you’ve flown recently, you’ve probably noticed your fellow passengers reading, playing video games, or just looking at their phones before takeoff — in other words, anything except watching the video of safety on board.

For a while, these safety videos became something of an arms race between airlines, competing to see who could come up with the funniest, weirdest, and most viral videos.

The trend took off in 2007 when Virgin America introduced a dryly humorous animated video. And this arguably culminated in 2014, with an elaborate Air New Zealand production featuring actors from The Hobbit which has been viewed more than 24 million times on YouTube.

An elaborate Air New Zealand safety video featuring actors from The Hobbit has been viewed more than 24 million times on YouTube.

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But not everyone is a fan. Critics worry that the humor could unintentionally distract passengers, who tend to remember the jokes but not the safety message itself.

“It’s too cognitively taxing, and information retention goes down,” said Brett Molesworth, a professor of aviation safety at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, who has studied the amount information that passengers retain from safety videos. Molesworth argues that moving toward longer, more elaborate concepts could prove counterproductive.

“When you start to associate or introduce a storyline or a certain type of marketing or advertising, you’re only going to hurt the retention of information,” Molewsorth said.

All this seems to put airlines in a bind. They need to grab your attention, but at the same time, they don’t want the video to distract passengers from the safety message.

This is not an easy trick to perform. But it can be done, says United’s vice president for security, Sasha Johnson.

“I’m very proud of the video we presented,” Johnson said. “I think it strikes the right balance between getting people’s attention. But also providing that up-to-date information every time so they can prepare.”

Filming for United’s video finished in November. A few months later, a Japan Airlines plane caught fire after colliding with another plane on a Tokyo landing strip. Remarkably, all passengers were evacuated safely, leaving their carry-on luggage behind – a further reminder of the importance of these on-board safety videos.

NPR’s Joel Rose reported from Washington, D.C. and Emma Jacobs contributed from Montreal

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