Envisioning through semiotics – a flight between Vienna and Casablanca

Envisioning through semiotics – a flight between Vienna and Casablanca

Our columnist took a walk in the gardens of the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna to reflect on signs and symbols, and to interpret the thoughts conveyed by the sculptures of the time. This excursion led to an unexpected sight, however, which had its own teachings to offer.

The gardens of the palace, including the parterre, which has 32 large sculptures along both sides, is a fantastic place to focus attention on the semiosis.

In 1569 the Roman Emperor Maximillian acquired the property, which included a mansion with the name Katterburg. He turned the land into a hunting area.

After his eventual successor, Ferdinand the Second, passed away in 1637, his widow had a palace built on the property. This would later be renovated during the middle of the 1700s, during the reign of Empress Maria Theresa.

The last emperor of Austria, Franz Joseph, was born in the palace and spent most of his life there. He died in 1916, and the empire fell in 1918, after which the palace became the property of the Republic of Austria. It remains a museum today.

The palace is surrounded by beautiful gardens and a zoo. It also provides a lovely walk up the hill to a magnificent gloriette – a perfect place to consider semiotics of different kinds.

At the top, I happened to look up and observed a rather strange sign in the sky. It was the vapour trail of a plane – which had become a rare sight, due to Covid-19 and the restrictions on flights.

That vapour trail reminded me of a flight that I had taken to Casablanca, in Morocco, shortly before the outbreak of the pandemic, to visit one of our sites. During the flight I decided to practise my skills in auditing the culture and observing semiotics. These were some of the elements I had focused on:


Artefacts

As with all aeroplanes, the seat pocket in front of each passenger contained a safety information card. As part of her safety demonstration, the crew member asked the passengers to take a couple of minutes to read the information on the card.

I was not surprised to see that nobody sitting in the seats around us had listened to the request. The information on the card included pictures, but there was far too much text. I also noticed small symbolic signs displayed on the back of the seats depicting that it was a no-smoking flight. I purposely waited until we were an hour or so into the flight before asking a colleague of mine, sitting in the adjacent seat, to close her eyes. I then asked her to tell me what sign was displayed on the rear of the seat in front of her. She could not answer – she had taken no notice! The sign had little purpose, as probably most of the passengers did not consciously take it in.


Discourse

As always, the crew members demonstrated the safety rules before take-off. Only a handful of passengers were paying any attention, however: people were chatting, some were dozing, others reading, and (unsurprisingly) many of them were focused on their mobile devices.

This behaviour is common, I realise. But why do passengers pay no attention to the safety instructions? Here are some theories:
The safety message is boring. There is nothing anchoring the passengers and the message is poorly framed. Frequent flyers have heard the message many times.

People believe incidents do not happen to them and, as a result, do not take safety information seriously.

Could there be a “bystander effect” in play, where people trust that the crew will take responsibility if something goes wrong?

The safety instruction is exactly that: it is an instruction, all about telling, and there’s not much that’s positive in the message.

Because the instruction is given to all passengers at once (understandably), there is little interest. There is no one-on-one communication. This is different when a crew member explains the safety requirements to persons sitting in the emergency aisles. The reason is that there is engagement with three to six passengers. The crew member gets their attention and then anchors them by asking if they are willing to assist in the event of an emergency. Once they respond “Yes”, the crew member continues with the explanation.

It was evident that the crew members were not enjoying conducting the safety demonstration.

If the safety instructions and demonstrations were conducted using the monitors, with a fresh design that changed every couple of months, passengers would more likely take note. (Some airlines make use of the monitors and even bring some humour into their instructions, and consequently more passengers pay attention. )

Risk priorities

When boarding, passengers are often confused about where their seat is. However, for this flight, the ground staff boarded the passengers in groups. This ensured that passengers seated in specified rows entered the aeroplane first, followed by those in the next set of rows, and so on. It was therefore easier for passengers to locate their seats.

I also watched the crew to see how they managed their time to clear up before landing. When they handed out the food and drinks, they were calm and well organised, working like clockwork. As we got closer to our destination, I noticed a sense of urgency – they started working faster to clear the waste, and place all trolleys and other items in their designated storage compartments. This sense of urgency seemed to result in some stress (risk influences) among the crew members.

Risk influences

While waiting to disembark, I asked one of the crew members where she was flying to next. She told me that after the return flight to Europe she’d have two days off. I gained the impression that the airline manages issues such as fatigue and pays attention to the well-being of their crews.

I didn’t have a chance to ask her if the crews have a good work-life balance, considering the time they spend away from home. However, with the days off that they get, I guessed it could be well balanced. (However, this was only my feeling and not a fact.) I recently talked to a friend of mine who was a crew member of a large Middle-Eastern airline for almost eight years. She said that, in general, the number of flight hours and rest hours is regulated by the aviation authorities, thus ensuring a good work-life balance.

However, back to my Casablanca flight: before take-off, a woman was making calls on her mobile phone and talking extremely loudly. It was clear that she was irritating the person sitting in front of her. The passenger kept turning back to glare at her but she ignored him and continued talking. Even her husband realised she was causing stress for others and tried to tell her to speak softly, with no success.

Two passengers also coughed constantly throughout the flight. Because everyone was aware of Covid-19, each time these passengers coughed, people looked around and raised their eyebrows or muttered amongst themselves, thus causing a measure of stress and, more than likely, fear.

Risk systems (sense-making)

There is a social element to a flight, as well as space, place and visuals on the plane. These are linked to feelings of belonging, discrimination and separation, among others, for these reasons, for example in the distinction between flight class:
• The sign “Business Class” obviously separates groups;
• The seats are bigger, and so too is the legroom;

The crew members close the curtain between Business and Economy prior to serving meals and drinks. This step ensures separation, letting those in the Economy Class feel envious (and probably encouraging them to book a Business Class seat in future).

I found this exercise useful in practising the skills and fundamentals of focusing on culture, semiotics and the social dynamics of people in a confined area. It was clear that it would take practice to do this properly, but there is no doubt that it’s more beneficial to assess safety through the eyes of culture than to make the mistake of assessing culture through the eyes of safety.

Fallibility

The trip did not end well. On landing in Casablanca I was informed that I needed a visa to enter Morocco. I did not have one, so I was not permitted to enter. I was not allowed even to leave the airport and had to fly back to Austria via Paris the following morning. This time, because of my uncomfortable and closely guarded night at the Mohammed V International Airport, I was in no mood to practise any of my newly learnt skills in the social psychology of risk.

To sum up

First, I believe that we rarely suspend our own agenda and switch on to the semiotics around us. Everything has significance, and we therefore need to focus on the bigger picture, suspend our own agenda and understand how everything has an impact.

Secondly, we often hear people talk about a “safety culture”. For me there is no such thing! Safety is not an add-on. Organisations have an overriding culture, of which safety is but a part. Culture comprises many aspects and everything within an organisation affects that culture.

As leaders and safety professionals we need to improve our understanding of semiotics as well as what contributes to the culture of an organisation. Everything has significance.

Published by

Brian Darlington

Brian Darlington is the group head of safety and health for the Mondi Group, based in Vienna, Austria. He has filled the role since 2012 and is responsible for safety and health in more than 30 countries. Darlington started working at Iscor before joining Mondi in 1987, working in Gauteng. In 2000 he transferred to the Kraft Division in Richards Bay. During 2005, he transferred to Europe, taking up the position of business unit SHE manager, responsible for SHE in paper mills in Austria, Hungary, Israel, Slovakia, Poland, South Africa and Russia, as well as forests operations in South Africa and Russia.
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