I’ve been flying for years and seen that flight attendant safety demonstration hundreds of times. You know, the one that starts with instructions on how to operate your seat belt. I couldn’t imagine that there could be any adult on the plane who couldn’t understand this simple mechanism — after all, they must have been in a car at some point in their life before getting on board the plane, right?

Wrong. Yesterday, on my way back from Los Angeles, I sat next to a woman who had no clue how the seat belt worked. She was an older Asian woman, traveling with her middle-aged daughter. I was on the aisle and mom was in the middle seat between us, struggling to make the metal tip somehow connect with the buckle. She tried lifting the lever and putting the tip in there. When that didn’t work, she tried forcing the belt through the holes in the end of the tip. No good. Finally, she simply gave up and held the two pieces together in one hand. She was obviously too embarrassed to ask her daughter for help, and I didn’t want to exacerbate the situation, so I didn’t volunteer any assistance. I don’t know how she made it from her Asian homeland to the US in the first place, but it was probably on a sea-going vessel that didn’t require seat belts.

The irony here is that the safety demonstration had still been absolutely no use. At this point in America’s airborne history, flight attendants do these things by rote and just breeze through the required verbiage. But even if they had taken it slower and offered a more detailed explanation of how to harness yourself to your seat, it wouldn’t have helped the woman next to me, because she didn’t speak a word of English.

Fortunately, the daughter eventually noticed mom’s difficulty and showed her the proper way to buckle up. Now, it was time for that next technical stumper — the fold-down seat-back tray table.