Flight Crew Talk: The Beatings Will Continue.

What we have here . . . is a failure to communicate.

You wouldn’t think it would be so hard for crewmembers to communicate in flight–we have the technology; interphone, PA system, headsets and handsets–even our oxygen masks on the flight deck are wired for sound.

Nonetheless, once the cockpit door is closed, communication dies a slow, miserable death and as captain–it’s YOU taking the Cool Hand Luke beating from the Road Boss.

You don’t like it, I don’t like it–but that’s the way he wants it . . . so he gets it.

Let’s start with what’s usually the first salvo, fired right as we climb through ten thousand feet. That’s the magic end of “sterile cockpit,” which is the time period when flight attendants know non-essential communications with the pilots is prohibited because it’s a phase of flight requiring our concentration in the cockpit, and distractions are not welcome. I have answered the crew interphone when we’ve received a call below 10,000 feet with the admonishment, “We’d better be on fire if you’re calling me now.”

But above ten thousand, here it comes: “Can you turn down the air?”

Sigh. What does that even mean? More cold air? More hot air? Higher temperature? Turn down? So begins twenty questions: “What is it you want?” Sadly, though, the whole thing is our own fault or, honestly, usually the F/O’s fault.

ac tempThat’s because F/Os just CANNOT LEAVE THE TEMP CONTROLS ALONE. This is especially true of those with lingering brain damage from the MD-80, which essentially had a caveman vintage air conditioning system that DID require a lot of tweaking. On take-off, at full power, it could make snow in the back if you didn’t nudge the temp control valve off of the full-cold stop.

Not so with the Boeing–but F/Os HAVE to mess with it anyway–even though if the temp was comfortable on the ground, the Boeing will maintain that in flight.Nope–F/Os have to mess with it, have to do something, even though automatically, it’s fine left alone.

And that brings on the second failure to communicate. Inevitably, the F/O has to argue, usually tossing out, “Well, the duct temp says 75 degrees.”

phone cockpit

Unfortunately, the crew interphone system is a party line, and the flight attendants are listening. Sigh. They don’t give a damn about the duct temp–neither do I–they just know if they’re comfortable.Β  But that’s the pilot pigheadedness: we already know everything.

To reiterate, as I bump all three compartment temps down, just leave it alone, and give them whatever the hell they want. What do you care? You’re not back there.

Plus, use your head: this is a senior turnaround flight, with senior flight attendants swathed in layers of polyester, hauling carts and traipsing up and down the aisle. You think they want heat? You think I do? Sitting in the gazebo, direct sunlight–I constantly reach over and call for more cool air. You’re cold? Too bad–next flight, bring a sweater.


Now, let’s visit the cruise portion of our non-communication. The primary voice passengers hear is the PA, which announces information pertinent to our flight, like arrival time and weather. That’s key information for travelers and crew alike. But, there’s a catch: flight attendants can’t hear the PA.

For flight attendants, the PA is like a dog whistle: we can all hear it, average dogs that we are, but flight attendants are oblivious. You could have just said over the PA “we’ll be landing in one hour” and within minutes, the interphone chime will go off and the question will be, “When are we landing?” And not just once, because not only do flight attendants not hear the PA, they don’t talk to each other either. So you’ll get the same call two, maybe three times.


And never mind that you’ve given them a hard copy of the flight time before takeoff, and that they’ve typed that information into the touch screen at their station controlling the passenger information and entertainment system . . .


. . . and that touchscreen, if they look at it, will tell them how much longer we have left in the flight. But, that would mean they’d have to look at their watch, then do the math. Especially when we’re landing in a different time zone–it’s easier to just call up front and ask me. Right?

Well, maybe not me. My answer is usually relative: “About ten minutes early.” Which means: look at your watch. This is your flight–know your own schedule.

Or, look at the gee-whiz panel at your station, counting down the minutes. Or, do the unthinkable: ask one of your colleagues in the back? Nah. Whether it’s the temperature or the time, rather than ask each other, just call up front. All of you–not one call, but four, because you can’t hear the dog whistle or talk to each other. Even had a fifth flight attendant, just riding the aft jumpseat home 130 feet behind me, ask me to “cool off the back.” Seriously?

Okay, it’s a given: we work together, fly together, even all talk–sometimes at once–to each other. We just don’t communicate very well. So, my new policy is this: any time the crew interphone chimes, I look to the F/O and say, “It’s for you.” He’s the one screwing up the temp anyway.

And at least I’m happy, and that’s a start.

sunset contrail

24 Responses to “Flight Crew Talk: The Beatings Will Continue.”

  1. Shikhar Joshi Says:

    Extremely hilarious post sir πŸ™‚

  2. Love iT!!

  3. Hello Chris, so true that I cannot find a word to add.

  4. Really fascinating to get the inside scoop on this stuff.

  5. Another post that leaves a smile on my face! (but then I am not cabin crew)

    I love your doodles – you should devise a competition for your readers to win one – maybe a caption competition or something……

    All the best!

    Dave W

  6. In the cargo world, boxes don’t complain, nor do they care about a smooth ride or if they are on time.

    The down side is they like to fly at night. In my next life I am going to be a millionaire and spend the day counting money.

  7. Really funny.
    Somehow things are the same no matter the office

  8. I was supposed to take a transcon flight last year and as the plane (A320) came to the gate, the gate agent told us that we had a choice of getting lots of blankets or take a later flight because that plane had issues with the air conditioning (the pax deplaning after 5 hours up WERE shivering) – so I guess the FAs got their much needed cold air… maybe too much of it πŸ™‚

  9. […] Boeing, communications, flight attendant. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own […]

  10. Too funny! πŸ™‚
    I like the “gee whiz” panel…

    Hey, does DB agree with this post?

    Take care, Dr. Captain. (I had to say that just once.)

    • Actually, DB taught me that–when we flew together, right before she closed the cockpit door prior to pushback, she’d always say, “Cold air, we’ll tell you when it’s too cold.”

      But sure, let’s hear it–

  11. paulmlally Says:

    another CAT 3 landing!

  12. Interesting to hear the professional’s side of the story…

  13. Let me know if you want to hear the flight attendant’s version of your story πŸ™‚

  14. Reblogged this on The Lexicans.

  15. Bill Brandt Says:

    Then there is the passenger, comfortably asleep, when the P/A system awakens with the captain blathering, “If you look off to your right, you will see Tulsa, and if….

    • Yeah, as captain, it’s always a tough balance with the P/A: protecting your right to your little nap time on your way to or from whatever widget sales meeting upon which the fate of the free world hangs, or pointing out sights to granny on her once-every-five-years flight, or those kids on their very first time in the air.

      I kind of root for the little guys, and let the more important passengers like you fend for yourself with your nap in a public place (how does that work for you on the ground?) because you certainly are too sophisticated to view any “landmarks” or “points of interest.”

      Guess it’s only because I don’t have quite your experience level in the air that I still find things worth seeing all over the continent, but that’s just me–and granny, and the kids. Sorry.

      • Bill Brandt Says:

        I thought the topic was needless communication – but I am learning if it comes from the flight deck it is as manna from heaven and anything coming from the cabin is superfluous – unless proven otherwise?

        On a deeper note – and which the link which brought me here made me assume – communication among the flight crew – and avoidance of accidents by open communications and not a “captain is God ” syndrome – I was thinking of an accident in Alaska years ago where the FO was trying to warn the captain of something – or the KLM flight at Tenerife

      • Captain is not god, and he’s a fool if he’s not listening to his crew.

        I also am careful how I solicit advice: in a critical situation, I don’t just announce my intentions and then ask what the F/O thinks of the plan. I phrase it “What am I not thinking here? What am I missing?” Because an F/O might say, “Sure, that seems like an okay plan,” but what I really want to know is, what are YOU thinking, and what am I missing? Between the two of us, we can come up with a better plan together than I can alone.

        If only the captain in Tenerife had asked the question, “What am I missing?”

  16. Bill Brandt Says:

    Chris – you sound like a good captain.

    I saw the PBS NOVA program on Tenerife, and (from an analytical view) it was a classic all-the-links-formed to the deadly conclusion scenario.

    The KLM captain was, if I recall, the chief pilot (even featured in their advertisements), he had to get in the air quickly or the rules would have dictated the plane spend another day on the ground (time in the seat), the instructions from the overworked guy in the tower was a big vague, and the FO questioned whether he should start the takeoff down the fog-shrouded runway.

  17. Isopropanol

    Flight Crew Talk: The Beatings Will Continue. | JetHead’s Blog

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