Airline PAs: Can we talk?


About the aircraft PA: let’s talk.

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When you’re an airline captain, you have to figure out how to talk meaningfully and concisely to a hundred or so passengers over the aircraft PA. That virtually one-on-one contact is an excellent opportunity reassure and inform the paying customers as they experience the marquee product: air travel.

Yet so many captains fall short, squandering this excellent marketing opportunity. Here’s what I mean.

Mostly, we’re pilots first and foremost, so we’ve had little training or experience addressing the public. You can almost hear the discomfort from the first PA on taxi-out. Typically, it’s a clumsy version of “Welcome aboard [insert airline] flight [insert number], service to [insert destination]. We are next for departure ….”

Really? Departure? We’re going to takeoff and fly; you’re the pilot, the aviator, not the “departure facilitator,” who will make this happen. “Departure,” “service” and “equipment” (pilots fly jets) are all lame parroting of the agents’ PAs in the terminal. The agents aren’t aviators–are you? Or are you an “equipment operator?”

Some of my four-stripe colleagues allege that the circumspect term “departure” is more calming for passengers, but I ask to what end, when the next thing that happens is the roar of fifty-thousand pounds of jet thrust and a headlong hurtle down the runway. Did you fool anybody, for a minute or two?
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And the first part: passengers know their destination–or if they don’t, maybe you shouldn’t tell them. Do they care about the flight number? Worst of all, “service?” As in “check under the hood, the washer fluid’s low?” Scratch the whole thing and get back to fundamentals.
On taxi out, I say the required, “Flight attendants, prepare for takeoff.” By the book, it is what it is. On climbout, I say, “Good afternoon (or whatever it is; I don’t do early mornings without a court order) and welcome aboard, this is Captain Manno.”

Not ever, “This is your captain speaking.” Because I have a name, and it’s not “Your Captain.” Would it seem awkward if your dentist said, “This is your dentist speaking?” Your teacher? On TV, airline captains don’t have a name, because it’s fake. Real life, real name.

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The other awkward introduction on the PA is the blurted, “From the cockpit,” usually preceded by “ah,” as in “Ahhhhh, from the cockpit, folks …” Maybe I could see, “from the cockpit crew,” but that’s as disjointed as “from your dentist” or even a sermon that started out, “Ah, from the pulpit, folks …”

Probably I’m a cynic, but the used car salesman-ish, “A very pleasant good day” rankles as a PA intro. Just give me the facts and I’ll decide what kind of day it is, okay?

Enroute, the pilot jargon is clumsy: “We’re at three-nine-oh, going to four-one-oh.” Just spit it out: “We’re climbing to forty-one thousand feet.” So it goes without saying that you needn’t use the slang of “wheels up time” (really? Hope we’re off the ground) or even “ground stop;” passengers start forming their own expectation of how long until take-off (not departure–we already left the gate) which may vary from the simple facts you could have cited: “We estimate that we’ll be airborne in approximately _____ minutes, although that may change. We’ll keep you informed.”

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And then I set a timer for 15 minutes, then make an update PA even if I have no new info. Just the basic contact, “We’re estimating ____more minutes, thanks for your patience, we’ll keep you posted.”

But god forbid, neither humor or sarcasm is smart, although some try. The problem is, anything that’s “funny” to one person is guaranteed to anger or offend one of the other 170 on board, especially when they’re under travel stress and unhappy about the inevitable delays, the crowding, the discomfort. I know that when I deadhead or fly on my days off that delays screw me into the ceiling–“comedy,” or any attempt, is just one more annoyance on top of many. So just stick to the facts, in a calm voice, and be sure to make regular contact.

When I’m in the passenger cabin listening to a PA, I’m the “Wizard of Ahhhs,” counting: after the third “ah,” passengers might wonder if you’re all there–and you’re probably not. If you are trying to listen to the air traffic control frequency and the emergency radio frequency as you make a PA, you’ll sound like the harried mom with a toddler squawking, the TV on, while trying to talk on the phone.
Give the route of flight in layman’s terms: “Pocket City” is aviation speak for Evansville, Indiana, where billiards are made, but will that mean anything to passengers? And please don’t end with the withering “and on into the ______ airport;” the double preposition will cause an aneurysm in anyone over fifty, plus it makes you sound like Gomer Pyle. Toggle down all the other audio channels and just give the facts, concisely, consistently and without ahhhhs.

My standard PA goes like this: “We’re heading just about due [east, west, whatever] and we’ll pass over _____, _______, ________, and _______ where we’ll begin our descent into _______ airport, where the skies are partly cloudy [I always say that, covers everything] and the temperature is [I make up something, what it think it should be–who’s checking?]. We’re estimating our touchdown at _______ [correct time zone] and we’ll have you to the gate a few minutes after that. We’re glad to have you on board, for now we invite you to relax and enjoy the flight.”

That’s it–no ahhhs, my name instead of my job title (your captain), no cutesy (we had a goofball who blew a train whistle on the PA and said, “Allllll aboarrrd!”) stuff and no comedy attempts that will eventually boomerang.
The captive audience is listening and it’s a tough house: they’re crammed into their seats, often jetlagged, tired, hungry and impatient with delays and just the general hassle that is air travel today. You’re not playing a movie role, recasting your remembrance of Hollywood depictions. Make it clear, concise and soft spoken. With any luck, they won’t remember you or anything you said the next day.
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19 Responses to “Airline PAs: Can we talk?”

  1. Whatever you do, please don’t try to sell me your airline’s credit card via the PA!

  2. Intentional or otherwise, that was funny, Chris. This is the place for humor, not on the inside of the long, skinny tube. After being force-fed many hundreds of “Cockpit Announcements,” I fully agree with your assessment and captains should remember that they are addressing a captive audience. A few announcements are excellent, delivering, ‘…please ma’am, just the facts.’ The great majority are annoying and should be ignored. Thank you for trying.
    -C.

  3. I don’t mind the double-prepositions or space-filling “ah” – it’s your flight skills, not your presentation ability, that makes me comfortable. I do wish for one thing, however. When it’s bumpy, just get on the PA and reassure me that a) we aren’t crashing; and b) you are looking for better altitude if it exists.

  4. AA Retired Says:

    I am in complete agreement with you on this one. I never understood why public, or should I say PA speaking, wasn’t emphasized more in initial upgrade, and recurrent training.

  5. Great article. As a gate agent, I have to struggle with a prescribed boarding announcement, written by someone in an office at headquarters who obviously has never paid close attention to an airport boarding process, the text of which must be strictly adhered to and is monitored by secret auditors. After years of being able to tailor the delivery depending on the crowd, it’s frustrating to watch the boarding process descend into mayhem as everyone ignores the repetitious monologue over the loudspeakers. Short and concise is always best, but our latest announcement doesn’t even include a “thank you” for their business. However, the announcements are regularly revised (as a new person takes over that office behind the scenes, far removed from an airport) so we agents don’t have to endure a bad p.a for more than a year or two.

  6. If only the cabin crew were also briefed in your method. As a passenger, by far the worst are international flights. There are the long winded announcements repeated in every language, with just enough gap between each to get back into your movie and then disrupt it, the wake up to tell you about duty free (again in every language), and a thousand other pointless announcements. By design you can’t ignore them which is good for safety related ones, but the majority are not that ,and teach you to tune out the crew.

  7. >And the first part: passengers know their destination–or if they don’t, maybe you shouldn’t tell them.

    True story that proves your point. I was traveling from someplace to Fort Lauderdale. After we were pushed back from the gate and headed for the line, someone (flight attendant or pilot – I don’t remember which) made that standard announcement. As soon as the destination of Fort Lauderdale was mentioned, a woman about 6 rows in front of me stood up and yelled “I’m not going to Fort Lauderdale! I’m going to Fort Pierce!”

    I assumed that she was going to FLL and getting to Fort Pierce some how, because we certainly didn’t go back to the gate, and as far as I can tell, no commercial traffic flies to St. Lucie County International.

  8. My favorite is “we will be on the ground shortly” which has a number of interpretations. Just say we will be “landing” as that is more reassuring!

  9. You did a nice job on the 8/4 DFW-PHL flight the wife and I were on. At “This is Captain Manno” I turned to her and said “I know this guy, sort of. Been reading his blog for years.” Always the skeptic, she said “Are you sure it’s the same one ?” “Chris Manno, 737 Captain, American Airlines. What are the odds there’s another ?”

  10. Excellent post. Right on the mark

  11. What’s your feeling on first officers making PAs? Or is it just a thing only for Captains?

    • No–I keep it simple: I do them quickly in a brief and consistent way and return my attention to flight duties.

      • So, it’s your feeling that first officers are not qualified to make PAs…despite the fact that many of them were experienced Captains at another airline before joining your’s?

      • I never said anything like that. You totally miss the point: minimum divided attention, I’m responsible for every word so I do it myself; has nothing to do with the F/O. That’s my best judgment based on 24+ years as captain at my airline. F/Os will find out soon enough that PAs are just one more distraction you need to minimize.

  12. Just simple and go. Please no singing, silly jokes, rapping about safety measures/procedures – especially rapping about safety procedures. (Although a heads-up for an especially nice sunset/cloud formation is appreciated…blog pix, you know…)

  13. I hate that my pilots can’t joke with us over the PA anymore… no more “Me and two other pilots walked into a bar…” jokes.

    • I think that “joke” went out with mandatory drug/alcohol testing in 1990. Really, the PA is just another minor responsibility I don’t spend much time on because there are more important things that need my attention in flight.

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