Southwest Airlines Crisis Shows Plane Oxygen Masks Badly Need a Redesign

What’s wrong with this picture? Twitter

Sometimes the internet just can’t mask its displeasure.

On Tuesday, an engine exploded aboard a Southwest Airlines flight, sucking a passenger out of a plane window and forcing an emergency landing. It was the first passenger fatality in an aircraft in over nine years.

In the aftermath of the incident, pilot (and Navy veteran) Tammie Jo Shults was hailed as a hero for staying calm under pressure.

But other commentators focused on blaming the passengers who weren’t wearing their oxygen masks properly.

Former flight attendant Bobby Laurie caused a stir when he tweeted this stern warning.

It’s true that not enough people pay attention during the safety lectures on airplanes—George Carlin performed an entire comedy routine about that.

But as many commenters pointed out, the design of the mask doesn’t make it clear that it should cover your nose and mouth.

“If almost everyone is using it wrong, then the product design can be improved,” one person wrote.

Laurie continued chiding his followers, telling them to “listen to the flight attendants when they tell you how to use it at the start of each and every flight, ever.”

But those detractors make a very good point.

Some airline safety habits are easier to demonstrate than others. For example, flight attendants can easily show how to put on a seatbelt since users can practice while the aircraft is on the ground.

But since planes on the runway (thankfully) have steady airflow, there’s no comparable way to demonstrate how to act in a real emergency.

Making matters worse, if the dreaded event actually occurs, plane personnel have very little time to work with passengers.

According to the Airline Owners and Pilots Association, passengers have about 30 seconds to safely get their masks on after a plane window blows open.

That’s hard enough to do on your own, not to mention if you’re traveling with children who need help. So since nobody wants to end up unconscious in the aisle, they all do the best they can—which leads to incidents like the above photo.

Conventional plane oxygen masks don’t have any marks or notches suggesting that they go over your nose. Or as programmer and designer Kate Compton put it, all a “scared shitless” person can do is improvise.

“Maybe if panicking people can’t put on your weirdly shaped cup thing right, it’s been badly designed,” she tweeted.

Compton went on to cite the 1988 book The Design of Everyday Things, in which designer Donald Norman argues that smartly designed products satisfy customers, while others only frustrate them.

Norman focused mostly on teapots and door handles, but this concept is even more important when lives are on the line.

“That is not an instance where you scold people that they missed a word in the instruction manual,” Compton wrote. “That’s where you redesign the doohickey.”

She then used the less technical example of parachutes to illustrate her point.

“I’d scare the bejeezus out of someone diving, see where their hand clutch in frozen terror and put (the emergency ripcord) there,” she wrote.

Sound advice, to be sure. Laurie and his cohorts should cut down on the lectures and focus on improving design so that issues like this never happen again.

Southwest Airlines Crisis Shows Plane Oxygen Masks Badly Need a Redesign