Microphone madness

Note to the captain: Keep the announcements short, practical and jargon-free. And lose the stand-up routine

Published March 19, 2010 12:20AM (EDT)

My complaint against the extreme levels of noise in U.S. airports brought in a slew of commiserative e-mails. It's pleasing to know that I'm not the only one driven mad by the inescapable blather of CNN and the bombardment of public address announcements. The passengers have spoken: Noisy terminals contribute to the stresses of flying, and dialing down the chatter would make many people happier.

On the other hand, not everyone agreed with my assessment of the airplane cabin as a respite from the racket. "Ironically, the actual loudest things at an airport -- airplanes themselves -- are almost never heard, buffered behind walls of glass and concrete," I wrote. "And it's not until stepping aboard your plane that you finally find some peace. The transition from terminal to cabin is almost palpable. So long as there isn't a baby nearby, the cabin is a welcome sanctuary of quiet."

"Quiet, yes," protests one reader, "until the crew launches into its litany of pre-takeoff announcements."

Several e-mailers raised this same complaint, and I see your point. Noise levels on planes aren't nearly as excessive as those in terminals, but come to think of it, there is an awful lot of yammering going on. There can be up to a half-dozen cabin P.A.s before your plane even reaches the runway, sometimes in multiple languages. Is this really necessary?

To some of these announcements we grant a pass. Surely there's nothing out of line about a brief welcome-aboard speech, for example, or other practical reminders. However, if there is one hideous and glaring example of excess, it has to be the pre-departure safety briefing. Is there anything more tedious?

In America, commercial flying is governed by a vast tome known as the Federal Aviation Regulations, or FARs -- an enormous, frequently unintelligible volume that personifies aviation's flair for the ridiculously arcane. Of its crown jewels, none is a more glittering example than the safety briefing -- 25 seconds of useful information hammered into six minutes of prolix rigmarole so weighed down with extraneous language that the crew may as well be talking Aramaic or speaking in tongues.

Whether prerecorded and shown over the entertainment system, or presented "live" the old-fashioned way, the demo has become a form of performance art, a campy adaptation of legal fine print brimming with ornamental gibberish. "At this time we do ask that you please return your seat backs to their full and upright positions." Why not, "Please raise your seat backs"? Or, my favorite: "Federal law prohibits tampering with, disabling, or destroying any lavatory smoke detector." Excuse me, but are those not the same bloody things? Doesn't "tampering with" pretty much cover it?

With a pair of shears and some common sense, the average briefing could be trimmed to half its length, resulting in a lucid oration that people might actually listen to. All that's really needed is a short tutorial on the basics of exits, seat belts, flotation equipment and oxygen masks. That shouldn't take more than a minute or two.

Once upon a time, when riding along as a passenger, I would shoot dirty looks at those who ignored the demo, and even made a point of paying undue attention just to help the cabin staff feel useful. After a while, realizing that neither the FAA nor the airlines have much interest in cleaning up this ornamental gibberish, I stopped caring. (Note: This does not excuse those passengers who insist on carrying on conversations over the announcement, effectively doubling the volume. Whether we need to hear a flight attendant explain the operation of a seat belt is open to some debate; we definitely don't need to hear the guy in Row 25 talking about his favorite seafood restaurant.)

Meanwhile, reach into your seat pocket and you'll discover a pictorial version of this same fatty babble: the always popular fold-out safety card. Similar to the demo, these are a pedantic nod to the FARs. The talent levels of the artists speak for themselves; the drawings appear to be a debased incarnation of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

When I was a kid I used to collect these briefing cards. My friends and I called them "escape cards." I had examples from TWA L-1011s, Braniff 727s, Allegheny DC-9s and so on. Poke around the Web and you'll see that I wasn't the only one.

Still worse are the cards spelling out the emergency exit row seating requirements. The rules covering who can or can't sit adjacent to the doors and red-handled hatches were a controversy for some time, and one result was a new standard in FAR superfluity -- an excruciating litany set to cardboard and packed with enough regulatory technobabble to set anyone's head spinning. Exit row passengers are asked to review this information before takeoff, which is a bit like asking them to learn Japanese in 12 minutes.

Look, blame the FAA for this silliness. It's typical of the agency's self-defeating obsession with minutiae and its forest-for-the-trees micromanagement of safety.

Crew members, though, can always make a bad situation worse, and some of you sent e-mails griping that pilot P.A.s are often as superfluous as those from cabin crew. This had me feeling self-conscious and a bit microphone-shy on my last work trip. I won't argue that my own announcements are short, but I avoid the folksy "Like to thank y'all fer flyin' with us today" kind of thing, and I stay away from jargon. If ever you catch me uttering the phrase "at this time," then clearly I've gone over to the dark side.

Here, how does this sound:

Good morning, ladies and gentleman, from the cockpit. We'd like to extend our welcome aboard Flight 96, nonstop service to São Paulo, Brazil. This is First Officer Patrick Smith speaking; I'm joined today by First Officer Neil Armstrong and Capt. Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin.

Our flying time to São Paulo will be nine hours and 20 minutes. Our route of flight, for those of you interested, will take us slightly west of Bermuda, then down across the Caribbean, passing just east of the island of Trinidad. We'll make landfall again near Georgetown, Guyana, and those of you on the right side should catch a nice view of Venezuela's Orinoco River Delta. Eventually we'll cross the Amazon River overhead the city of Santarém; then southbound passing over Brasilia before beginning our descent into São Paulo. Weather on arrival should be hazy skies and a temperature of around 90 degrees Fahrenheit -- about 32 Celsius.

We're waiting for some final luggage and freight to be loaded, and expect to be pushing back on time. We should be looking at a slightly early arrival, depending on the length of the takeoff queue. We'll give you a more accurate ETA once in the air. Again, nine hours and 20 minutes en route, and we hope you enjoy the flight. Thank you.

That's a template -- names, flight time, routing, arrival weather, departure status -- that I stick to very closely. Like I said, it's not short, but I try to keep it practical.

It varies from carrier to carrier, but guidelines do exist outlining the acceptable tone and content of crew-member announcements. Sayeth your General Operations Manual, Chapter 5, Verse 12: Do not discuss politics or religion. Off-color jokes, innuendo or slurs of any kind are forbidden. Thou shalt maintain only nonconfrontational rapport, lest the Chief Pilot summon and smite thee. (I strongly advocate that the recitation of college football scores be added to the list of prohibitions, but that's just me.) Rules might also restrict -- and not without good intentions -- the use of potentially frightening language or alarming buzzwords. One airline I worked for had a policy banning any announcement that began with the words, "Your attention, please."

"Your attention, please. Southeastern Central 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. "Yeah, uh, ladies and gentlemen, looks like 31L at Kennedy just fell to less than an eighth. It's under 600 right now on all three RVR. They're calling it Cat-III, and we're only Cat-II up here, so, um, we're gonna do a few turns over the VOR, then spin around and shoot the ILS to 22L. 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 cares that the wind is blowing from the southwest at 11 knots, or what the dew point is. They want to know if it's sunny, cloudy, rainy or snowy, and what the temperature is.

The only thing worse, maybe, than a pilot trying too hard to be informative is a pilot trying to be cute.

For that, let's flash back to the early 1990s and my very first airline job.

Our 19-seater had no flight attendant, and it was the responsibility of the first officer to give the safety demo, providing the opportunity to hone his or her public speaking skills. With most regional copilots qualifying for food stamps, this also was a natural segue into researching a second career. Namely, comedy. Southwest's stand-up routines have nothing on the wisecracking and ad-libbing heard at Northeast Express Regional Airlines, circa 1992, believe me. Of course, I know of no airline pilot ever taking the stage at a comedy club, which is a testament to just how awful most of these routines were. "But seriously, folks, your seat cushion becomes a flotation device! Is this thing on?"

Other planes had built-in cassette players, through which all regulatory announcements were taken care of by a sober-sounding fellow with a voice like James Earl Jones. Side A was the safety demo, which would run and then automatically stop. When the time came, you'd flip to Side B for the pre-landing spiel. With the tape decks on hand, I’d sometimes carry albums to work. Out on the apron between flights, I’d have lunch (usually something from Spinelli's, over in East Boston, which would splatter my shirt with enough tomato sauce to make it look like I'd murdered my passengers) and listen to music. One thing led to another, of course, and every now and then riders would be treated to the greatest hits from Patrick Smith's collection of 1980s alt-rock.

The idea was to play a couple of songs while people got comfortable, then switch it off once the engines were started. Occasionally I'd forget, and the music kept going. Neither I nor the first officer could hear a note of it, strapped with headsets, but I'm sure some people dug it. What could be more consoling to passengers, already agitated and uncomfortable, than belligerent rock music mixed with the din of thousand-horsepower engines?

En route to Burlington, Vt., one evening, the noise was enough to prompt a weary-looking businessman to stick his head into the cockpit and ask, "Could you please turn that racket off?" Oh hell, I thought, the tape! I reached for the player, then paused with my finger on the switch and asked him, "You mean the music, or the engines?"

Before I go, a clarification:

Two weeks ago, in my critique of Der Spiegel's analysis of last year's Air France disaster, I wrote the following:

"There are upward of 600 A330s in service around the world, plus another 350 of its almost-identical twin, the A340. Together they have flown tens of millions of air miles, and to date only one has crashed. That's a better per-unit hull loss rate than for any Boeing model."

Actually the A3340/A340 model has suffered three hull losses in commercial operations -- two flown by Air France and one by Iberia -- versus only one for the Boeing 777. I was trying to make a comparison between fatal accidents. The first two Airbus mishaps were runway overrun incidents -- including one covered at length by yours truly, here and here -- in which nobody was killed. Air France 447 was the first and only deadly accident involving an A330 or A340.

In either case, however, the math is wrong, since there has never been a fatal 777 crash.

What I was trying to say and what I wrote were quite different, and I concede it was sloppy reporting -- not to mention embarrassingly ironic since it occurred in the context of my snarkily criticizing a Der Spiegel reporter for his own misleading comments.

Let me try again:

"There are upward of 600 A330s in service around the world, plus another 350 of its almost-identical twin, the A340. Together they have flown tens of millions of air miles, and to date only one has been involved in a fatal incident. That's a better per-unit hull loss rate than for any Boeing model save the 777."

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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