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How Flight Attendants Keep Passengers Calm (and Informed)

When an incident or delay causes passengers’ nerves to fray, a flight crew’s timely, calm communication goes a long way toward soothing concerns.

Keeping passengers informed through various communication methods is vital in today’s competitive marketplace. There are many day-of-travel touchpoints an airline can use to communicate well with its passengers—beginning even before departure—but these opportunities are sometimes wasted.

I recently received a letter from an Executive Travel reader about an in-flight problem the crew experienced during a flight on which he was traveling. This reader was very concerned about the incident because the captain did not give much detail. (Food service was stopped, the pilot and flight attendants seemed edgy, and it sounded as if there might be an issue with the landing gear.) From his description, I imagine that the pilots had their hands full with whatever situation they encountered. Thankfully, the aircraft landed safely, without further complications.

If there were ever a time to be forthright and confident in delivering an announcement, that was the time. A steady voice coming over the PA from the captain would have gone a long way toward calming the nerves of concerned passengers.

Should you ever find yourself in a similar situation, remember that the pilots are doing their best to get you to your destination as quickly and as safely as possible. As you exit the aircraft, if the cockpit door is open, you might stick your head in and ask the pilots if they feel comfortable explaining what happened in the air. If they have time, they will be happy to communicate with you, so you can leave with your curiosity satisfied.

Even pilots need flight status messages

Perhaps the most important communication you receive from an airline concerns the status of your flight departure. Technology has given airlines the capability to notify passengers of their flight status via cell phone. This is an extremely powerful communication tool that keeps passengers apprised of last-minute changes. Many airlines automatically issue these computer-generated updates whenever a flight is delayed or there is a gate change. This effective tool goes a long way toward keeping customers happy, and it sows the seeds for long-term relationships and brand loyalty.

In fact, some pilots have signed up for electronic notification via their handheld devices to find out the status of their own flights more quickly. My wife is also a pilot for a major domestic airline, and her phone often informs her about a change in flight status before her employer’s operations team does.

Airline schedules are incredibly tight, so one late aircraft can cause all remaining flights to run late that day. Knowing your flight status ahead of time gives you options: You may be able to reschedule your flight or cancel it altogether, if it looks like you’ll miss your connection. All of this is easily done if you have enough time to make alternate arrangements. But unfortunately, operations departments at most major airlines are usually staffed for a “perfect day” scenario, so they wind up feeling burdened by the occasional overload. Add the domino effect of weather cancellations, diversions and 24/7 international flight operations, and you’ll get a more accurate picture of the complexities involved.

“This is your captain speaking...”

When a flight fails to leave on schedule, there is nothing worse than being stuck on the plane wondering what’s going on. As long as the airline staff gives out honest and up-to-date information, most travelers will adjust their expectations accordingly. In my experience, effective and timely communication can soothe the nerves of passengers whose demands require well-timed information. Some pilots are great communicators, but others are not. I have flown with both types and much prefer the ones who keep passengers informed.

This communication takes little effort, but pilots are often busy working out problems with air traffic control, resolving maintenance issues or dealing with last-minute passenger matters. These problems often come at the most inopportune times, adding yet another distraction to an already demanding set of circumstances. For example, taxiing around an unfamiliar airport where one wrong turn could lead to an accident requires the undivided attention of both pilots.

Most flight operations manuals have a communications section with sample scripts for every imaginable announcement that might be required during a flight. Part of a captain’s initial training covers the public relations policy in the operations manual. That said, many pilots are sensitive to the passengers’ need for a little peace and quiet.

Pilots are an integral link in the communication chain, and they can positively influence a passenger’s experience with only a little effort

What is the sterile cockpit?

The sterile cockpit is an FAA mandate that prohibits any non-operational conversation or activities below 10,000 feet, but some airlines have increased that safety margin to 18,000 feet. (Ground operations are included in the sterile cockpit requirement, but they can be ignored if the aircraft is stopped and the parking brake is set.) Unless there is an emergency in the cabin, the flight attendants listen for a signal via chimes that indicates sterile cockpit status before they contact the cockpit during ascent and descent.

CHRIS COOKE is a pilot with a major domestic carrier. He can be reached at editor@executivetravelmag.com.

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