There’s Risk in Failing to Brief Your Passengers Before Flight

Authority and responsibility for the operation and safety of the flight means you’re the one responsible for the passenger safety briefing.

Being the pilot in command means you are responsible for the passenger safety briefing. [FLYING file photo]

One of the first definitions a fledgling aviator learns is that of pilot in command (PIC).

The PIC is the person who:

  • has final authority and responsibility for the operation and safety of the flight;
  • has been designated as pilot in command before or during the flight; and
  • holds the appropriate category, class, and type rating, if appropriate, for the conduct of the flight.

Authority and responsibility for the operation and safety of the flight means you're the one responsible for the passenger safety briefing. Don’t take anything for granted as it is highly likely your passenger will be someone who has never been in a small aircraft before.

Failure to brief your passengers can result in risky behavior. They don't know what they don't know, and you don't want them to do anything foolish or dangerous during the flight—like reaching for ceiling-mounted trim actuator and cranking it furiously because they mistake it for a window actuator and they want fresh air in the aircraft, or, worse yet, grabbing the yoke and attempting to “play fighter pilot.” You also don't want them to be frightened by things  seasoned pilots take in stride, like light turbulence, crosswinds, other aircraft in the pattern, and operations at a nontowered airport.

A thorough and thoughtful passenger briefing can address these things.

Sample Briefing

It is often best to conduct the briefing outside the aircraft before the engine starts. Once inside the aircraft, the excitement of an airplane flight can reduce attention spans. Begin the briefing by stating your role as PIC and your responsibility for the safety of the flight. This is very important when flying with someone who you have grown up with. For example, the first time I flew with my father I began the briefing by reminding him I was no longer 15 years old, and he was not teaching me to drive. Dad was a military man, and he appreciated the checklist I used for passenger briefings. It covers safety belts, cockpit safety, traffic and talking, and emergency procedures.

Let them know that seat belts need to be kept on when the aircraft is in motion and demonstrate how to put them on and take them off. Show the passenger how to adjust them. Make sure they are on tight. A great many aircraft have the lift-latch style seat belt and, for someone who has never been on an airliner and only ridden in cars with push-button style seat belts, there will be a learning curve.

Caution the passengers not to touch the flight controls. This includes the rudders. Make sure they understand those are not footrests and don't put your foot underneath them. You may want to slide the passenger seat back as far as you can safely do so to facilitate the separation.

Demonstrate how to put on and take off the headset, and position the boom mic in front of their lips. Explain the concept of a sterile cockpit on takeoff and landing—no unnecessary talking—as that is when you will be task saturated and need to focus on flying the airplane.

Instruct the passengers how to look for and report traffic using the analog clock, pointing to the cardinal numbers such as 12 o'clock, 3 o'clock, 9 o'clock, and so forth.

Advise the passengers that when there is a radio transmission they need to stop talking because it may be something important. You can help them by holding your hand up to signify they must be silent.

Demonstrate how to open and secure aircraft windows and doors. Tell them that when they depart from the aircraft to stay away from the propeller by walking away on a 45-degree angle toward the rear of the airplane.

This next part gets a little tricky. You don't want to use the words “fire” or “crash” because that's what the passengers are going to fixate on, but this emergency information is too important to skip.

Instead, let them know what to do if there is an unscheduled off-airport landing—like if you find a spider on board—to wait for the airplane to come to a complete stop then remove their headset and seat belt, open the door, and egress the aircraft, heading away and toward the rear at a 45-degree angle. Use hand gestures to demonstrate these actions as you speak. 

If there is a fire extinguisher on board, point to it and announce that as the pilot in command you will use that fire extinguisher to dispatch the hostile spider. Subliminally, you have shown them where the fire extinguisher is.

Airsickness is another difficult subject since you don't want to plant the thought in their head. Pro tip: Stash resealable plastic bags in the back pockets and side pouches of the aircraft. Have one or two within your reach that you can hand to the passenger if the need arises. You might find it beneficial to offer the passengers a piece of mint gum or a Tic Tac before the flight begins, saying that it will help keep their ears clear—mint is also a natural stomach soother, putting you ahead of the problem.

When They Don't Listen

Sometimes the passengers don't listen and that makes your job more difficult. For example, you may be trying to return a radio call, and the passengers are chatting away although you have your hand up to signal quiet.

Pilots who have experience with this can get creative when dealing with troublesome passengers. I was aboard a Cessna 172RG tasked with taking two local newspaper reporters to a nearby airport where two World War II bombers were on display. I was working for an aviation publication at the time doing a story about the bombers and agreed to pull double duty as “copilot” for the flight. A friend of mine, another CFI, was acting as PIC.

The passengers, a couple of 20-something nonpilots, cracked inappropriate jokes all the way through the preflight briefing. When we got them strapped into the back seat, they were loud, kept talking about accidents, and wanted us to buzz the tower for kicks. When we were in cruise flight, one of them started rocking side to side and shouting about how we were going to crash.

The PIC asked him—then told him—to stop, then sort nudged me and mouthed the words, “Play along.” I nodded.

The PIC brought the manifold pressure back far enough that the gear warning horn activated.

"That's the wing warning!" the PIC cried, looking at me anxiously. "Oh, crap! I think one of them might be loose. Check your side!"

"Aye, aye, captain!" I shouted and intently peered out the window while he did the same on his side.

He let the warning horn sound for another 10 seconds, then he restored power. “Huh. False alarm,” he mused.

I looked over my shoulder at the two reporters. Their eyes were huge. They didn't say a thing for the remainder of the flight.

I am reasonably certain learning took place.

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.

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