Ask the pilot

Getting the silent treatment from airlines. Why are they so bad at customer relations?

Published January 27, 2006 11:15AM (EST)

A flight from Las Vegas is canceled because "it's too hot to fly." A crew aborts a landing because "a plane crossed in front of us." In Flagstaff, Ariz., counter staff inform a group of delayed passengers that volunteers are needed to give up their seats. When passengers ask why, they are told, "We need to lighten the load. The plane has been having problems and we're afraid one of the engines might cut out."

Those examples appeared in this space a week ago as part of a discussion on the roots of aerophobia. Millions of people, we know, are fearful fliers. This is the insurmountable result of human nature as much as anything else; all the statistics and straight talk in the world won't overcome a certain reluctance toward racing through the air in giant metal tubes filled with explosive fuel. But clearly the airlines, as lazy and ineffective communicators, have made a difficult situation worse. Time and time again, and seemingly against their best interests, they act in ways that nurture and perpetuate myths and misconceptions.

It's ironic that while travel by plane remains profoundly safe, the airlines themselves are the subject of widespread and growing distrust. The mass media does them no favors by distorting and overhyping minor events, but the industry has, for many years, been guilty of aiding and abetting people's fears through a combination of tight-lipped reticence and the use of ludicrous simplifications.

Let's take reticence first: Not long ago I received a letter from a man who'd been onboard an aircraft that suffered a compressor stall after takeoff. Compressor stalls are caused by a backup of airflow within the rotating compressor sections of a jet engine. They don't occur very often, but when they do, they tend to manifest themselves rather vividly -- through extremely loud bangs and, occasionally, tongues of flame. That's the nature of a turbine engine. Most compressor stalls are transient and harmless, though once in a while components are damaged and engines need to be shut down. Either way, people react to the noise and flames as you might expect them to -- with fright. In the letter writer's case, the stall had been potent enough that the crew returned for a precautionary landing. Passengers were shaken up; some were crying.

Once on the ground, the passengers disembarked and were hurriedly herded to a replacement plane. It was chaotic and disorganized, and virtually no explanation was provided aside from a short announcement by the crew and a vague reference to engine trouble.

Days later, the man sent the airline a formal query. With nobody offering evidence to the contrary, he wondered if he'd come close to perishing in a disaster. As he saw it, the plane's engine had practically exploded outside his window. "Is it true," he asked the airline, "the plane could have flown with a failed engine?"

The airline sent him an apologetic form letter and a hundred-dollar voucher for future travel. All well and good, except he didn't want a voucher, or even an apology. He wanted to know what had gone wrong, and how treacherous it truly was.

Why couldn't each passenger have been mailed a no-nonsense summary of what happened, describing the general innocuousness of compressor stalls, along with a reminder that all commercial airliners are certified to fly after the failure of a powerplant?

That's a fairly middle-of-the-road scenario. Take the somewhat more harrowing case of an MD-80 that burst a tire on takeoff six years ago. Shreds of the material were ingested by an engine, which proceeded to catch fire. The plane then made a full-blown emergency landing. "There was smoke in the cabin," remembers one passenger. "People prayed and cried. It was the worst and longest feeling of doom I have ever experienced."

While the emergency was very serious, if you look at it piece by piece, it wasn't the near-calamity this passenger, and dozens of others, thought it to be. But the carrier never explained how or why it happened. Again, it gave out travel vouchers and a carefully worded apology that revealed nothing.

Over the course of fielding questions through this column, I've received countless letters from passengers left mystified, scared and angry after similar instances.

Fortunately, engine fires, tongues of flame, exploding tires and the like are quite rare. But on the other hand, the bulk of anti-airline sentiment has little to do with emergencies. Airlines do most of their self-immolating in response to the thousands of small operational snafus that take place daily around the world: weather and traffic delays, cancellations, minor mechanical problems. Almost always these are complicated affairs, but airlines have perfected the art of dumbing them down -- the science of air carrier logistics reduced to preposterous caricature: It's too hot to fly.

"Airlines in general could do a better job of communicating," admits U.S. Airways spokesman Carlo Bertolini. "In fact, you might say it's difficult to overcommunicate. Historically -- especially in the stiffer days prior to deregulation -- it's fair to say the industry didn't do a good enough job at looking at events from a customer's perspective. That's pretty much what it comes back to: trying to see thing from the customer's perspective.

"You mention two scenarios -- an actual emergency and a minor irregularity. I think the industry has improved communications in both areas. I don't want to mention specific examples, but if you compare the past to the present, I think there have definitely been improvements."

Admittedly there's the proverbial can of worms when it comes to full disclosure; lawsuits often arise from what appear to be harmless, even helpful, remarks or actions. And there's little benefit to overwhelming people with the arcana of aircraft operations. Sometimes, "It's too hot to fly" is an all-too-tempting alternative. Layering things in technical mumbo-jumbo can have the same effect as turning them into cartoons, leaving people suspicious and shaking their heads.

"If you try to get too technical about something," Bertolini adds, "it can come across as serious when it's actually routine. My sense is that most customers would like to have timely updates about a delay, and a general, honest sense of what caused it. Beyond that, I don't think drilling down into a lot of details adds much."

The answer is to meet the need halfway. It's hard to imagine an instance where a reasonably explicative overture isn't both comprehensible to the average flier and within the bounds of litigation worries.

As a former employee of five different airlines, large and small, I can attest that the majority of obfuscation isn't malicious or even intentional. Most of the time, it's the result of intrapersonnel breakdown. Such is the rigidly compartmentalized structure of airlines, where the specifics of a circumstance are passed along from department to department, each with its own vernacular and area of expertise. At the end of that chain, the person in charge of picking up a microphone and announcing that your plane has engine trouble is liable to have little or no understanding of how that engine actually works, or what on earth is wrong with it.

Perhaps at the heart of the matter, carriers pay little penalty for acting as their own worst enemies. Fostering and reinforcing skewed perceptions of air travel has little effect on their balance sheets. Getting back to what was discussed here some months ago, the airlines do just fine regardless of inaccurate, sensationalist renderings, whether from themselves or the media. Profitability is another issue altogether, but planes remain full, and a majority of people, intellectually if not emotionally, grasp that flying is safe. Why stir the pot? Doubtless this lack of bottom-line impact is why, for now, a culture of miscommunication remains entrenched.

Some consistently profitable European airlines, however, go so far as to offer fear-of-flying outreach programs. British Airways refers anxious passengers to seminars run by its pilots. Virgin Atlantic holds popular "Flying Without Fear" classes at airports around the United Kingdom. Austrian Airlines sells three-day seminars that include lectures from pilots and psychologists, visits to maintenance and technical centers and, at the conclusion, a short flight from Vienna. (Austrian's Web site includes readily available fear-of-flying information and a page called "The Fascination of Flying," complete with an encyclopedia of technical terms.

To the best of my knowledge, none of their U.S. counterparts have similar schemes in place. Years ago, the fabled Pan Am was one company that did. Retired captain Tom Bunn was a founder of that program. "They gave us use of an airport boarding lounge to hold lectures," he remembers. "We had access to a parked airplane and free tickets for the graduation flight." Bunn stresses that Pan Am had no illusions that it could generate revenue from these courses. "It was all about the publicity," he says. Northwest once ran a program called "Wings," but that has been "discontinued due to economic reasons," according to a Northwest spokesperson.

Of all front-line employees, pilots are potentially the most valuable for soothing anxieties and explaining the nuances of abnormal situations. Are they trained to communicate? Are protocols in place for operational anomalies like emergency landings? The answer to both questions is a resounding yes and no. Crewmember manuals contain many stipulations about P.A. announcements and general interactions with customers, and captains are sometimes put through a brief version of charm school prior to earning that fourth stripe. But more often than not, the focus is on how not to communicate -- which phrases never to say, which terms and scary-sounding buzzwords to avoid.

"The captain decides on what level of detail he or she will go into when briefing the passengers," says Jay Merritt, spokesman for British Airways. "This responsibility should not be burdened on the cabin crew, who should be ensuring the cabin is secure -- i.e., catering carts cleared, seatbelts on, and so forth."

And for crews, the hazards of self-incrimination are always hovering. Right or wrong, good or bad, there's an element of fear in every cockpit. Not a fear of crashing, but fear of saying the wrong thing -- of being blamed, implicated, scapegoated and punished should something be misconstrued or taken out of context. With their careers and often their airline's reputation in the balance, pilots are generally forbidden from speaking to the media following an accident or incident. Sadly, this has a tendency to carry over in the way they speak about anything. By keeping it simple, the thinking goes, you stay away from trouble.

That's not to say crews lie, but they're known to employ euphemisms to the point where things sound goofy -- a compressor stall described as an "engine pop," for instance -- or else more harrowing than they really are. Take the case of an aircraft asked to break off its approach. The plane pitches upward, engines whine, and passengers look around nervously. The captain comes on and announces, "Some traffic got too close to us." That can mean any number of things, few of which are as hazardous as those six words would imply. Euphemism cuts both ways. For customers, it relieves the burden of having to decipher elaborate jargon and procedural fluffery: "Ah, folks, see, they're shooting parallel CAT-2 approaches today, and the traffic to our left was staggered about a quarter-mile outside the diagonal boundaries. We got a TCAS aural, and they had us go around." But it also paints the picture of a hapless, unprofessional operation.

"Flight deck crews are absolutely encouraged to explain unusual occurrences," says Bertolini of U.S. Airways. "In some cases, it's written in as part of an emergency procedure." True, but communication is given light attention over the course of a training syllabus. I'd be remiss to note, this isn't entirely without reason: When you're battling fires and explosive decompressions in the simulator, mastering the art of keeping people safe and alive, public address protocol isn't exactly of top concern. Bertolini adds, "We certainly respect that among our pilots, their focus, rightly so, is on the safe operation of the flight."

JetBlue is one airline that believes crew-passenger communications deserve extra emphasis. New-hire pilots are put through a brief course in public address etiquette and are given a 20-page manual called "Enhancing the JetBlue Experience: How to Make Great Pilot P.A.s." The carrier points out that up to 90 percent of passenger complaints about rough air and aborted landings, for example -- nonevents from a pilot's point of view on all but the rarest of occasions -- focus not on what happened, "but on the customer's uneasiness about why it happened, and concern that there might be something terribly wrong."

Well and good, but JetBlue's efforts toward eloquence and openness have decades of bad P.R. working against them. When those aboard JetBlue flight 292 were faced with a stuck undercarriage and an impending emergency landing four months ago, the flight crew made every effort to let customers know they were in very little danger. Rather than accept this, according to some who were there, many passengers assumed the pilots were lying. This was no surprise to me; I receive letters all the time from people accusing airline staff of falsifying the "truth" of what they take to be life-threatening situations. In reality this almost never happens, but it's a notion deeply implanted (and is partly to blame for why the repulsively overblown story of flight 292 refuses to go away).

"There comes a point," says one United Airlines pilot, a note of frustration in his voice, "when passengers have to trust us."

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On Jan. 20 you wrote of the Iran Air jet being downed in 1988 by the U.S. Navy destroyer Vincennes. I am a former crewmember of the USS Vincennes, and I assure you it's a cruiser, not a destroyer. (I remember you were guilty of the ship misnomer mistake in an earlier column, but I let it slide.)

-- Kevin Seiler

Author's note: Guilty as charged (and I hate to admit, it's in the book too). I'll remember to be more forgiving the next time somebody mixes up a jet with a turboprop.

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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