Ask the pilot

Is it ever appropriate to praise the Lord over an airplane's P.A. system?

Published February 20, 2004 8:30PM (EST)

The answer is no. I did not receive free tickets, a bouquet of Asian orchids or a complimentary backrub from a flight attendant in exchange for last week's mouthwatering portrayal of Singapore Airlines' in-flight pampering. Much as I deserve all of those, of course. I'll have you know my queries to Singapore requesting a media invite for the inaugural LAX-SIN nonstop went unanswered. I'll be trying again next fall when those megahauls to New York are launched.

Try to kindle a little appreciation for the chance to fly in undue comfort halfway around the world, and 50 different e-mails are calling me an airline apologist and asking whose payroll I'm on. Don't I wish.

Speaking of apologies ...

As most of you are probably aware, an American Airlines captain faces disciplinary action after evangelizing to passengers on a flight between Los Angeles and New York on Feb. 6. Roger Findiesen, pilot of American's Flight 34, who had recently returned from a missionary trip to Central America, asked Christian fliers to identify themselves by raising their hands, then urged them to engage their non-Christian seatmates, whom some witnesses say he referred to as "crazy," in a discussion about faith.

The nightmarish visions invoked by an us-vs.-them religious provocation by a crewmember need no elaboration, and reportedly several passengers were in the midst of making mobile phone farewells before things settled down. The mood was apparently so tense that when the captain asked non-Christians to identify themselves, very few souls (sorry) raised their hands.

This is easily the most curious -- some would say disturbing -- story to emerge from a cockpit since those two Southwest pilots went au naturel aboard a 737 last April. Southwest eventually terminated the offenders, while American says the antics of its proselytizing pilot are under investigation.

The airline flatly denies having implemented any faith-based initiatives to help entertain passengers, and let's go ahead and stave off the jokes and cartoons before they happen, assuming it's not too late: Flight attendants will not be coming around with collection baskets; seats will not be replaced by pews; a copy of the New Testament will not be found in your seat pocket; a tablet-style recreation of the Ten Commandments will not be posted on the first-class bulkhead. Yes, an aft lavatory is about the correct size and shape of a confessional, but no, there is no need to address the captain as Father, Pastor, Reverend, or His Holiness (though you are free to speak at will of his all-knowingness, and for $4 he will turn your Diet Pepsi into a small bottle of wine.) The separation of church and sky is well assured, if not by the Constitution, then at least by good sense.

You would think.

Will the hapless Captain Findiesen be seeing a little fire and brimstone from his bosses? Assignment to some unpaid purgatory? Probably, as it should be. He shattered decorum and made a lousy decision. "Whether you're promoting Christianity, Islam, or Amway," says one Evangelical airline pilot, who asks that his name be withheld, "I don't think it's appropriate for an airline pilot to proselytize on the P.A. system."

Imagine, for a second, if the captain of a Pakistan International or Royal Jordanian flight had done the same thing, swapping "Christian" for "Muslim," somewhere over the Atlantic en route to New York. That plane, surrounded by a phalanx of scrambled fighter jets within minutes, would not have been allowed within 500 miles of U.S. airspace. Granted that's not entirely fair, since nobody has been threatening to skyjack airliners in the name of Jesus, and we have to figure that most of Flight 34's occupants were Christian, at least nominally. But the parallel is an obvious and discomforting one.

Still, the reports don't vouch for the tone or inflection of his broadcast -- important factors when it comes to deciding his penance. Was he speaking good-naturedly, ominously, apocalyptically? For now, and having shared cockpits with activist Christians in the past, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and ask that you not equate this man's attempts at transcontinental soul-saving with anything more than a little spiritual enthusiasm, albeit horribly ill-timed and, yes, a violation of the rules (we'll get to that in a minute). For what it's worth, reports claim that he eventually broadcast an apology, and appeared, well, repentant, as passengers disembarked.

Public address protocol in general seems to be an area of great intrigue among fliers, and perhaps understandably. That disconnected drawl coming over the speakers is often your only glimpse into the personality and character of the fellow to whom your life has been entrusted. Often that voice is all you get. On larger planes the cabin is so long and the cockpit so physically remote that a majority of passengers, having surrendered their fates for eight, 10 or 15 hours at a time, may never lay eyes on the cockpit crew at all.

It varies from carrier to carrier, but guidelines do exist outlining the acceptable tone and content of crewmember announcements. You'll find stipulations against personal opining, and against discussions of politics and religion. Sayeth your General Operations Manual, Chapter 7, Verse 12: Jokes, off-color innuendo, or slurs of any kind are forbidden. (Although Southwest seems to have a slightly different take, which actually requires pilots and flight attendants to make jokes over the P.A.)

In general, though, thou shalt maintain only the most generic and nonconfrontational rapport, lest the Chief Pilot summon and smite thee. (I strongly advocate the recitation of college football scores be added to the list of prohibitions, but that's just me.)

In practice, of course, it's all very informal, and pilots have more important things on their minds than the rulebook technicalities of P.A. announcements. It's not the sort of thing one rehearses during simulator training. Engine fires and hydraulic failures are what a pilot worries about, not whether his microphone demeanor is meeting the small print of some obscure page in one of his manuals. At the end of the day it all comes down to common sense.

The rules also restrict -- and not without good intentions -- the use of potentially frightening language or alarming buzzwords. Taken out of context, the invocation of something like "wind shear" or "icing" is liable to have passengers weeping. One airline I worked for had a policy banning any announcement that began with the words, "Your attention please."

"Your attention please. Southeastern Nebraska Tech has just kicked a last-minute field goal to pull ahead of North Southwestern Methodist State, 31-28."

Another no-no is launching into complicated, jargon-rich explanations. The vernacular of aviation contains enough acronyms and technical arcana to set anybody's head spinning. "Yeah, um, ladies and gentlemen, looks like Runway 04R at Kennedy just fell to less than an eighth. It's under 600 right now on all three RVR. They're calling it Cat-three, and we're only Cat-two up here, so, um, we're gonna do a few turns over the VOR, then spin around and shoot the ILS to 31L. They've got a 300 and a half over there."


To me, the important thing is to avoid overburdening people with information they can't use. Take the weather. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it's my hunch that nobody in row 36 cares that the wind in St. Louis is blowing from the southwest at 14 knots, and that the dew point is 57 degrees. They want to know if it's sunny, cloudy, rainy or snowy, and what the temperature is.

But in their attempts to translate confusing terms and clarify complex situations, crews are known to lapse into a hokey kind of pilot-ese that leaves people both uninformed and suspicious. There can be a fine line between what's genuinely informative and what's been dumbed down to the point where it sounds silly. I'm loath to bash my brethren, frontline defenders of whatever respect happens to remain in this business, but to a great extent we're only as articulate as what we've got to work with, which in this case is an almost paranoid dictum against scaring people or messing with their minds.

Airlines do not have policies of concealment or misinformation, tough as that may be for some to accept. But in their attempts to allay confusion (frequently) and fear (always), they recommend, if not mandate, only the simplest, easy-language explanations. This approach is totally out of whack with something as immense and intricate as our air system, and for as long as patronizing baby talk remains the procedure, distrust will continue to breed. Instances of cockpit-to-cabin awkwardness are, at least sometimes, symptoms of this greater dysfunction.

Making everything worse is the transfer of information between departments. When the weather turns foul or something goes wrong, the details are often passed from one team of workers to another, each with its own set of terminology and patois. The particulars of a given delay might be handed along from air traffic control to dispatchers to gate staff to crew before you're given the bad news. Then it's the pilot's duty to turn that mangle into something that's not overly technical or scary, yet also accurate and informative.

Better, maybe, just to talk about Jesus.

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Editor's note: This story has been corrected since its original publication.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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