Ask the pilot

"I'd like to welcome you to Honolulu. Unfortunately, we are in Fresno." Public-address announcement hysteria rules the skies.

Published April 23, 2004 7:30PM (EDT)

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By nature the airlines are secretive animals. Even paranoid. There's a chicken-or-the-egg thing at work here, as to whether secrecy breeds contempt or vice-versa, but paranoia is perhaps natural in a corporate environment where safety and security lie at the heart of operational success. Half a billion people ride our largest carriers each year, and most, if not all of them, buckle their belts to at least a lingering acknowledgment of their own mortality. Flying is the safest way to go, everybody knows this, but statistics don't placate those back-of-the-mind apprehensions. Thus the aisles of a crowded 747 buzz with a collective unease not felt in the aisles of a Wal-Mart. The presence of fear, whether acknowledged or not, supercedes all the other latent complications, pleasures, and disappointments of travel by air.

The airlines, you could say, have nothing to fear but fear itself. An easy enough problem, you'd expect, for the industry's P.R. people and marketers to deconstruct and alleviate. Yet, after eight decades they've still not devised an effective strategy of communicating. When the shit hits the turbofan, so to speak, airlines take the Fifth and customers see red.

To passengers, the most obvious frontline symptom of this institutionalized skittishness is the dreaded public address announcement. Our air system is massively complex, increasingly high-tech, and yes, at the core of it all inherently, if not statistically, dangerous. Yet every time that microphone crackles, mostly what we hear is choreographed baby talk. Eyes begin to roll every time a customer service agent, or crewmember, opens his or her mouth. Even the most basic broadcasts are heavily fortressed: the campy legal-speak theater of the cabin safety demo, the squealy condescension of the thanks-for-flying-with-us pitch. The most innocuous anomalies have been reworded, intentionally or otherwise, into a lexicon of infantile explanations. Turbulence becomes "a couple of bumps up ahead," the complexities of air traffic control delays are reduced to "waitin' for some rain showers to pass."

The desire is to avoid confusion, keep things topical, and never, ever, insinuate danger. The result is the shaking of heads and a propensity, often enough, not to believe a word of it.

As many fliers know, Southwest is one airline that juices up its crew-passenger interaction through any number of gags, jokes, and songs. They are the exception, not the rule, and perhaps they're swinging the pendulum too far, cultivating a whole new style of in-your-face offensiveness. In the end, the art of communicating shouldn't rely on humor either.

But let's not get too academic. People don't want phony smiles or slippery excuses. They don't want to be coddled, sung to, or asked to partake in toilet paper races. They want respect, in the form of cogent answers and useable information.

And, OK, to split the difference a bit, the occasional laugh. A few columns back, I asked readers to send in their most memorable experiences with airline public address announcements, and promised to share a few of my own. Most of your submissions were pretty funny, though whether the best laughs come at an airline's behest, or at its expense, depends how sardonic -- or contemptuous -- a flier you are ...

(Selections are edited for clarity)

  • I was waiting at the gate at Albuquerque and there were some people waiting on standby. Their name was Dix. When the gate agent called them to the counter, it came out like this: "Party of two Dix, please come to the counter."

  • I once had the pleasure of sitting on a British Airways flight in which the pilot was English and the chief steward was French. Whenever it came time to make "official" announcements -- say, to announce the beginning of meal service -- they took the chance to rib each other. "Today's chief steward is from France, so pardon the service. He isn't rude, he's just French." This would be matched by, "The pilot may know about engineering but what do the British know about food!" Great repartee without going over the top, and it got many laughs.

  • It was on the old PSA (Pacific Southwest Airlines). After landing, the attendant came on: "Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to welcome you to Honolulu. Unfortunately, we are in Fresno." No airline, not even Southwest, comes close to the humor and pranks the attendants (and pilots!) inflicted on PSA passengers. When USAir sucked them up -- and closed them down -- many Californians shed a tear. [PSA jets wore smile decals beneath the nose.]

  • We were taxiing at Heathrow on British Airways when one of the crewmen came on the P.A. making the usual end-of-flight announcements, and slipped in casually: "Anyone standing before the fasten-seatbelts light is switched off will be shot." It's the sort of thing that would cause horror today, but at the time everyone laughed, the light tone reinforced by the fact he sounded so ... British, in that cute and harmless way. I suppose if it had been Lufthansa it might have come across more menacing.

  • On one flight I was seated in back and the captain was cracking jokes with terrible puns. The flight attendant charged forward muttering "I'm going to murder him." I stopped her and said relax, we're enjoying it. She replied: "But he's my husband and I told him I would kill him if he told that one!"

  • It must have been 20 years ago when I took Republic Airlines from Chicago to Green Bay. It was a couple of days before Christmas and quite late in the evening. The flight attendant did the complete safety demonstration in a perfect imitation of Gilda Radner's Rosanne Rosanna-Danna voice from the old "Saturday Night Live."

    [If you're a Gen-Xer or older you'll understand this SNL reference. The rest of you were born long after the death of genuine TV comedy.]

  • Flying to St. Louis, the pilot got on the public address system near Pittsburgh and said: "A special treat for the passengers on the left side. Look straight down and you'll see a very large white house. Here, let me show you." [At this point he actually tipped the plane so we could see.] "That's my ex-wife's house. I know it's her house because that's her lawyer's BMW in the driveway." He was very cheerful about the whole thing, but a lot of passengers looked at each other with a mix of laughter and anxiety.

  • Southwest Airlines cockpit announcement: "I've got good news and bad news. The good news is that the machine that rips the handles off luggage is broken. [Cheers from passengers.] The bad news is that our departure will be delayed for an hour while they fix it."

  • Heard aboard a South African discount carrier: "In the unlikely event of a water-landing, you will find a sexy yellow lifejacket under your seat, now being modeled by the flight attendant. [Wolf whistle]. The lifejacket is also equipped with a light, so you can read while waiting to be rescued."

  • About eight years ago on a United flight to Newark, the flight attendants made an announcement that the person who could come closest to guessing the amount of change in the pilot's pocket would win a prize. We wrote down our guesses with our seat numbers and the winner got a bottle of wine.

    The bottle of wine contest reminds me of the time, riding to La Guardia once aboard the old Trump Shuttle circa 1991, when the captain auctioned off a pair of tickets to a Broadway show. "Do I hear 25? Going once? Going twice." Passengers would chime in their bids using the attendant call button. The performance was later that evening, and the captain had planned on attending himself. He'd just been told by Crew Scheduling that an extra round trip had been tacked on to his rotation.

    On Royal Air Maroc, shortly after departure from Kennedy en route to Casablanca, I recall this one: "Your attention please, the captain informs us there will be no sleeping on the floor." Well, I thought, that's good to know, though if he insists on grabbing a nap I'd be happy to sit in his chair for a while.

    The annals of flight are full of humorous, if occasionally dubious, accounts of over-the-air insults, malapropisms and bloopers. Among my favorites is the one supposedly made by a flustered British Airways steward just after touchdown in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Assuming this story is true, an act so politically incorrect probably got the hapless steward fired before the doors were opened. As the plane turned clear of the runway, he clicked and spoke: "Ladies and gentlemen welcome to Riyadh. For the correct local time, please set your watch back three-hundred years."

    Several years ago, a 37-seat turboprop taxied out for takeoff on a foggy morning at Logan International Airport in Boston. Prior to reaching the runway the airplane stopped, then doubled back and headed for the terminal again. After talking with the captain, the sole flight attendant cleared her throat and announced: "We're sorry, but for your safety we have to return to the gate. The pilot does not have enough experience to take off in the fog."

    I was not witness to this event, but I suspect you could have heard a pretzel drop in that suddenly astonished cabin.

    As you might expect, the truth of the matter was substantially more complicated than the picture she'd painted: that of some post-pubescent airman with a new pair of wings who hadn't yet learned to fly on instruments. She certainly avoided anything long-winded or confusing. And in doing so she set off a chain of "you're not going to believe this" phone calls that, to this day, are surely remembered by those who made and received them.

    Taking it the other way, I suppose she could have said: "Uh, folks, unfortunately the RVR out on 04 Right has dropped to less than a thousand. Our captain today has only 89 hours in type, PIC, and per Op-Spec's requires at least a hundred for anything less than 1,600 RVR ... ."

    And so on. Somewhere in these two extremes is the perfectly balanced, accurate-but-not-too-technical explanation the crew should have made. Would you like to hear my version of it? Me either. Let's just wrap this up instead.

    That same airline employed another young stewardess who, fresh out of training and new to the area, did not realize that "La Guardia" and "New York" meant the same thing. While in line for takeoff one morning, a passenger asked what time they'd be landing in New York, at which point the girl exclaimed, "Oh my God, you're on the wrong plane!" The captain was informed of a misloaded passenger and, without knowing the details, decided to taxi back in. He instructed the attendant to make an announcement in case other people, too, had been boarded by mistake. "Ladies and gentlemen," she began, "If you are traveling to New York, we regret to inform you this plane is headed to La Guardia ..."

    I can vouch for that one since I was the captain.

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  • By Patrick Smith

    Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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