Zen Redux: Zen and the Art of Passenger Mainenance

“This is an emergency announcement,” the female voice declared in prim ‘n proper British accent over the intercom of the British Airways’ 747—while cruising at 35,000 feet over the North Sea. “We may shortly need to make an emergency landing on water.”
Minor detail:  this “emergency announcement” was an accidentally-triggered prerecorded message. . . accidentally triggering 330 passengers to panic.
This recent embarrassing debacle reminds me of the old Airbus pilots’ joke:  “Ladies and gentlemen, we are flying a state-of-the-art,  fully automated Airbus and nothing can go wrong click! go wrong click! go wrong . . .”

While I’ve have never had to deal with trying to calm down hundreds of panicked passengers inflight, there is definitely an acquired art to the making of a passenger PA.  Typically, flight attendants must read their briefings verbatim, but the pilots up front have much freer reign.  Oh, sure we’re required to grovel a bit to you and say, “Thank you for flying Very Fast airways.  Buckle in, there is no need to panic,”* etc.  But how we say it is largely left to us.  While I’m always tempted to simply say, “Welcome aboard, sit down, shut up, behave,” and be done with it, that particular PA only works to cut the tension on the annual simulator check ride.  At least for me…

Rule # 1:  the traveling public wants to be reassured.   They want their Captain to have a deep, gruff, authoritative but soothing fatherly voice, like George Clooney with a Texas drawl.  Unfortunately, my voice has been going through puberty for the past 35 years; I sound more like Cap’n Doogie Howser.  Once, during a particularly early morning departure when my vocal chords were at their most relaxed, I thought I’d made the most manly PA of my life.  But that fantasy was quickly shattered when two college kids poked their heads into the cockpit after the flight and said, “We just wanted to see who was flying, ‘cause you sounded like you were 18!”  Since then, I’ve been resigned to my fate.

Rule #2:  Humor is allowed over the PA, but you’d damn well better be good at it.  If not, refer to Rule #1.  While my buddy Captain Tony can keep his cabin in stitches for hours,** I found out a long time ago I’m in the “Not” category.  Once, on April Fool’s Day, I diligently kept our passengers informed of our imminent arrival into RNO . . . during our flight to LAX.  From the first announcement on, the flight attendants plagued the cockpit with pleas to correct the destination . . . the passengers were on the verge of mutiny!  It was then that I learned:  the Captain’s voice over the PA is the Voice of God.

Barney Fife’s Cap’n voice?  EPIC FAIL!

The strength of the turbulence is directly
proportional to the temperature of your coffee.
— Gunter’s Second Law of Air Travel 

The age old turbulence/seat belt sign bit is an art unto itself as well.  It boils down to this:  one man’s gentle rocking, nappy-time turbulence is another’s “my God, my God we’re all going to die!” . . . it’s simply a matter of opinion.  And the forecast of turbulence is just that: a prediction.  Personally, I use the SWAG method:  the “Scientific, Wild-A** Guess.”  Oh, sure, we can guesstimate by reading the clouds, listening to other aircraft’s reports, etc.  But in reality, there’s no telling just what Mommy Nature has up her sleeve.  In fact, it’s so random, that we call the Seat Belt switch the Turbulence button:  turn it off, get instant bumps.  Bottom Line, we err on the side of caution.  In the end, really, the seat belt sign is nothing more than a Liability Switch:  if it’s on, get up at your own peril.

There is also an art to revealing just what’s going on without giving away TMI.  While I can’t exactly jump on the PA and say, “Folks, pay no attention to the burning wing,” I also must avoid describing ad nauseum exactly what the mechanics onboard are fixing.  For example, I can’t launch into a five minute dissertation of just why our our IAE V-2533-A5 Engine Number 2‘s ECU (Engine Control Unit) on the FADEC (Full Authority Digital Electronic Control) is triggering spurious warnings from the SDAC (System Data Acquisition Concentrator) to the EWC (Engine/Warning Display) without sounding alarmist.  And I certainly can’t say, “The doohicky on the whatchamajig is causing quite a nasty ruckus with that gizmo thingy.”  But I can say, “Our ace mechanics are onboard resetting one of our black boxes.  We should be under way in a few minutes.”***

Bottom line:  Trust us.  It’s OUR butts in the plane, too, and we ain’t gonna risk it, PERIOD!

Cap’n Aux in the midst of another one of his stellar—if not very funny—PA’s.
…but he STILL sounds (and looks a bit) like Cap’n Doogie.
Note:  Special thanks to Getjets for “volunteering” her awesome classic pic at the top of this post!  I stole it from her “MissTWA” blog–see below for link!

*For inspiration, I always look to this Monty Python sketch as the quintessential pilot PA:
** Example of classic Tony PA:  “Attention K-Mart shoppers, we have a blue light special on aisle . . . oh, sorry, that’s my day job.  Ahem!  (deep, gruff George Clooney voice with a tinge of Texas drawl) This is your Captain speaking . . .”

*** See previous  blog post!
Related links: