The spoof movie “Airplane!” is becoming the basis for something real, 34 years after its release.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is reprising his role as the pilot Roger Murdock in Delta Air Lines’ in-flight safety video, which began appearing Thursday.
He doesn’t give Clarence clearance, and isn’t told “Roger, Roger!” He merely appears, with a knowing wink, as the punch line to what is a decidedly different take on the traditional safety video, including 1980s references like a Devo hat, a heavy metal guitarist, Valley girls and Alf trying on an oxygen mask.
All in the name of safety — and marketing.
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It’s the latest example of how airlines are rethinking what has been one of the most ignored, if important, few minutes of any passenger’s trip.
The stated aim is to focus attention on what to do during an emergency. But Delta, and other airlines including Virgin America and Air New Zealand, increasingly see them as something more — an opportunity to bring buzz to their brands.
“Airlines recognize that safety videos are beyond boring, that travelers aren’t paying attention to them,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst for Hudson Crossing. “But they’re required, and the content they contain is important.”
Enter the marketing departments, which are increasingly taking over the creation of the videos.
“If they’re fun, more people will pay attention to important information,” Harteveldt said.
“And they will serve as a reason for travelers to fly the airline. It’s a small reason, but small things can help an airline stand out.”
Virgin America ‘safety dance’
It has worked quite well for Virgin America, which released its “safety dance” last fall, attracting more than 8.6 million views on YouTube. More akin to a number on “Glee,” it has driving music, professional dancers and soaring lyrics with exhortations like “So tonight, get ready to fly, cuz we’re gonna live it on up in the sky.”
Regardless of their tone, all airlines’ in-flight safety videos’ content must meet the standards of the civil aviation authority in the country where they operate. In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration reviews U.S. airlines’ passenger safety briefing videos.
One inspiration for the new approach is Southwest Airlines, which lets its flight attendants riff, in their live announcements, on the traditional safety message, “as long as they continue to specify the required safety procedures,” said a spokeswoman, Michelle Agnew.
Another pioneer was Virgin Atlantic, which began creating animated safety videos in the mid-1990s. Its first featured the voice of Ewan McGregor, then an unknown actor. It followed that with an animated safety video, released in 2001, that pays homage to “South Park,” though with tamer content.
Virgin America, which is 25 percent owned by the Virgin Group, took its cues from Virgin Atlantic when it created its first safety video, an animated film, when it began flying in 2007.
Another early creator of entertaining safety videos is Air New Zealand, which has been making them with its ad agencies, .99 and True, since 2009. Mike Tod, its chief marketing officer, said the videos were a way to stand out in a crowded market: “Air New Zealand is a small airline at the bottom of the world. We have to do things differently.”
Its videos have featured flight attendants and pilots delivering safety instructions wearing nothing but painted-on uniforms, or Hobbit-inspired costumes, pegged to the New Zealand-made “Lord of the Rings” films.
They have also featured rugby players from the All Blacks national team, the adventurer Bear Grylls; and, most recently, actors Betty White and Gavin MacLeod from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” (One piece of advice for passengers: when it’s time to turn off an electronic device, they don’t mean the hearing aid.)
More new videos coming
Mauricio Parise, director of marketing communications for Delta, said the 1980s theme for its new video was chosen because travelers in their early 30s “have been exposed to the decade, and a significant amount of the Delta population has an emotional connection” to it.
In addition, he said Delta did not consider it risky to feature an actor from “Airplane!” — which depicts an aircraft in distress — in the video, since the film is “one of the funniest and most iconic movies of all time.”
Still, the phenomenon will continue: Tod said in an email that Air New Zealand would release a new video in February. Virgin Atlantic said it would introduce a new video on March 1. And “entertainment components” will be a key element in new safety videos produced by American Airlines, newly merged with US Airways, said Vann Graves, executive creative director of the New York office of McCann Erickson, American’s ad agency.
“American has a captive audience,” Graves said. “We will now have an opportunity to speak to them about the brand, who we are as a brand.”