One of the most enjoyable aspects of general aviation flying is taking friends or family to ride along as passengers. When other people come onboard, however, the pilot in command is required to do a passenger briefing and go over basic safety topics. I’ve found it very helpful to establish a set order of topics that I explain to passengers, similar to a flow checklist used for other items. This helps ensure that besides meeting the minimum requirements set by the FAR’s (91.519), you also make your passengers feel comfortable and prepared for the flight. A golden rule is to NOT make assumptions about what passengers do/don’t know about the plane and safety tips. The other general rule is to not scare your passengers home by overloading them with information.
When taking someone up for a flight, I’ll try to discuss the general plan ahead of time, and at least go over what to bring to the airport. Depending on the weather I’ll tell them to bring a sweater or a jacket, reminding them that it might be colder at altitude. If we’re planning on practicing maneuvers, eating a light meal or snack is better for avoiding motion sickness than flying on an empty stomach (or being completely stuffed). It’s also a good idea to remind passengers there is no “lavatory” onboard.
At the airport, I will usually do my own planning and get a weather briefing. It’s a critical phase of the flight, so I prefer to do it without additional distractions. For the preflight walk-around I like to have the passengers outside with me, just so they can see me checking everything and hopefully feel more confident about the flight. Carrying a checklist and reading off each item aloud is highly recommended.
Once everyone is finally seated inside the plane, I try to do the full briefing before starting the engine. This saves precious Hobbs time. The first item to talk about is what is legally required by the FAA. This includes the smoking policy, use of seat belts, location of aircraft exits, and survival equipment. (Also oxygen systems and flotation devices if equipped)
The second item is how to talk with a headset, and where the ports are to plug in. I like to make sure we can all hear each other talking, and I’ll demonstrate how to adjust the volume on each individual headset. Next I’ll discuss when they should be talking. Briefly explaining the principle of a sterile cockpit helps passengers remember to not distract the crew during a critical phase of flight.
The last topic I try to cover is general information to make them feel relaxed and comfortable during the flight. I specifically tell passengers to chat and talk during the flight as much as they like. As long as the pilot is not terribly busy talking to ATC, it’s usually fine to just speak up and ask questions or comment about anything. I also mention that for longer flights it really lightens the atmosphere and helps us stay more focused and alert. Passengers are also welcome to use personal phones and cameras anytime during the flight; pilots really like pictures of themselves flying!
Finally I’ll just inform them that they are welcome to help look out for traffic, and that I’d appreciate their help with calling out the position of other aircraft in a calm or normal voice. Conclude passenger briefings by asking if they have any other questions or concerns about the flight. Once this is finished, everyone onboard the plane should be ready to go flying!
As a side note, I’d adjust this general flow depending on the experience, knowledge, and confidence levels of the passengers flying. The pilot in command is allowed to skip sections of the brief that he believes passengers are already properly aware of, and he/she may supplement the brief with any form of illustrations or safety cards.
For very experienced passengers, I might discuss the deployment of the ballistic parachute system (In a Cirrus) if for some reason I, the pilot, were to become incapacitated. Possible scenarios might include a severe bird strike or sudden medical condition.
When other pilots are flying with me but not acting as PIC, I make sure to clearly communicate expectations and responsibilities. For example I might ask them to help with radios, but request them not to change autopilot or FMS settings without my permission. If flying with any view-limiting device, the other pilot would become PIC also, so it would be important that they realize this and are willing to accept responsibility. (Besides being current and rated to do so)
When you finally get in the plane to go fly, the whole brief might not take very long. It’s not necessary to have a memorized speech or to present the safety features in an airline captain’s voice. Consistency is important though. Passengers will appreciate the structured briefing, and everyone will have a better and more enjoyable flight experience because of it. Who knows? Maybe the passengers will actually want to come back the next time you offer to take them flying.