True Confessions: Telling Passengers the Inconvenient Truth

True Confessions: Telling Passengers the Inconvenient Truth

True Confessions: Telling Passengers the Inconvenient Truth

 “If you’re faced with a forced landing, fly the thing as far into the crash as possible.”

– Bob Hoover

Without a doubt, October is my favorite month of the year. Fall brings the change of colors, crisp temperatures, the smell of burning leaves, the sound of migrating geese and the holiday of horrors: Halloween. While an admirer of the season, I’m not a fan of the grisly facets of All Hallows’ Eve – even when narrated by Vincent Price. But the ghoulish holiday does present a timely pretext to discuss what we tell our passengers before things turn dangerous or disastrous.  

A Timely, Truth-Telling Factoid

We spend vast amounts of time and money celebrating the macabre traditions of Halloween (close to $2 billion). And the latest rumor is that it’s the second most popular holiday of the year next to Christmas. But this is fake news; it’s not true. Second place spending and popularity goes to an event that’s not even a holiday: Back-to-School. Who says the U.S. is falling behind in education? Then you have Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Father’s Day, the Super Bowl and then Halloween. We spend more on our Mothers than our Fathers or sweethearts. Also, more on Easter baskets than for Fathers. The Halloween popularity rumor is not true; it’s low on the holiday totem pole. The correlation to aviation in this truth-telling factoid is coming. Remember, it’s a “timely pretext.” 

Good Fun?

Halloween originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, where people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts. The evening before was known as All Hallows Eve, and later Halloween. Halloween has evolved into trick-or-treating, pumpkin carving, parties, costumes and eating candy. It’s also the holiday in which we say and do ghoulish things in an attempt to elicit fear, apprehension, shock, surprise and to exercise the adrenal glands of others – all in good fun of course, and more often perpetrated by males. While I have seen GA pilots attempt said good fun with aircraft systems in order to startle or scare passengers, such fiendish and foolish actions are in direct conflict with our professional persona when we operate an airplane. Calm and boring is the way we want our flights to proceed – no drama, no shock, no fear, no surprises and definitely no blood and guts. But when Halloween-like dangers become a reality, how much truth should we tell passengers about airplane issues? Things like dangerous weather, diversions, fuel leaks, fires, equipment deficiencies and component failures? Before we get too grave, here is a warm-up tale about presenting passengers with the inconvenient truth. 

A Servant of The Traveling Public

While not dangerous or disastrous, the following incident highlights the reactions, this one irrational, that our passengers may exhibit when we tell them the truth. While not as funny as the “stiff-drink” affair (see “Say What?,” T &T July 2019) and more about the selfish state of mind in which we may find people, this tale is also from an FA and a true story. Picture if you will, an intelligent, diligent and well-presented female crew member. Normally a gentle, delicate and humble young lady, this flight attendant is. An attentive servant of the traveling public tasked to ensure passenger safety but pushed, not by a full moon but an irate and irrational traveler, into revealing the werewolf portion of herself. The portion where polite patience turns to engulfing exasperation (cue Vincent Price laughing in the background). 

Her G550 Was at the Cleaners

The story takes place on a flight from RSW to ORD and involves a lady passenger that was connecting on a flight to Spain from ORD. Keep in mind, a lot of folks from RSW travel with their Pekinese pocket-puppy and only use public transportation when their G550 is at the cleaners. The weather in Chicago was absolute crap, and after some holding, the captain announced that the flight would divert to Milwaukee. Oh boy, the lady and her dog would have none of that. Standing up in her seat (the lady, not the dog), she began her rant: “I need to get to Chicago for my flight to Spain.” The mild-mannered FA approached and responded, “We have to divert to Milwaukee ma’am – the weather in Chicago is too bad to land.” Pounding with both hands on the back of her seat and in unison with her words, she responded: “That’s unacceptable. We-have-to-go-to–Chicago – period.” At this point, passengers sitting plus or minus a couple of rows were staring with trepidation as the confrontation escalated in intensity and animation. With waning patience, the FA said, “I’m sorry, but this plane is already on its way to Milwaukee.” The passenger then added foot stomping to her hand pounding and shouted, “No-it-is-not! Tell the captain we have to go to Chicago!” A low growl confirmed the dog’s agreement. The FA apparently needed to use different words. These weren’t working on the lady or the dog.

A Huge Ball of Fire

The lady’s tantrum was finally cut short when the flight attendant calmly and quietly let fly with the unrestrained truth: “Ma’am, sit down right now. We have to divert to Milwaukee because we need more fuel. If we don’t, we are going to run out of gas, crash into the ground, burst into a huge ball of fire and we will all die – and your little dog Toto too.” Even a meek, mild and humble servant of the people must sometimes explain things, um, plainly? And I just threw in the little dog Toto thing – couldn’t resist. Halloween and all. 

The lady passenger began to grasp the seriousness of the situation while simultaneously realizing she had acted foolishly, influenced by not only the truth but the chuckling of other passengers. This is a prime example of why the PIC needs to anticipate the variances in psyche and the issues of which passengers worry. Before sitting in the left seat of an airliner, we have many years to witness both inflight and ground issues and to see how a well-seasoned PIC explains things to the passengers. Over the years, I’ve seen the varied reactions folks have to bad news. And the whole telling-truth-thing sometimes doesn’t work as well as we might contemplate, so be ready. And you probably want to skip the crash into the ground and fireball parts.

My pilot-friend and fellow writer Dick Karl was an oncology surgeon. Before becoming a steely-eyed jet pilot, he spent his career giving bad news to his patients and then progressively more dire news each time they met. A while back, I read “Being Mortal” by Dr. Atul Gawande. It discusses nursing homes, hospice and the modern-day process of dying. A portion of the book talked about various techniques the physicians could employ in discussing this process and the painful decisions. It described three general approaches: 

Dr. Information: Just the facts, ma’am. Only clinical facts and procedures are discussed. 

Dr. Know-it-All: This is what we found wrong with you, this is what I think about it, and this is what we’re going to do about it. This type of discussion isn’t a discussion at all; it’s a briefing. 

Dr. Interpretative: These are our options based on your expectations and desires: What is important to you? What outcome do you want and what are your expectations? 

As the PIC, we like to tell the truth, but as you saw with the lady and her puppy, sometimes even a simple truth like a diversion can ignite a secondary fire.

Talk to your passengers before and after these come on.

You Can’t Handle the Truth!

As pilots, we pretty much have only the “Dr. Information” and “Dr. Know-it-All” approaches available when interacting with our passengers. We tell the folks the situation and let them know our plan – it’s a dictator briefing, not a committee meeting. Imagine if we gave our passengers bad news then progressively worse news in the fashion of a surgeon each time we met: “Since we flew together last week, I’ve had a weather consultant interpret the TAF chart and the mechanics from our group presented their findings. We had hoped for a remission but the terminal weather is, well, terminal. There is a good chance that one of the right engine fan blades is developing a stress fracture. And even treated with $80,000 per-once fix-it stuff from the airplane-pharmacy, the crack is likely to progress. We also have an occluded fuel line. We’re taking a fuel thinner to help keep the fuel flowing but it’s possible that our left engine will have a convulsive seizure due to the occlusion. If one of the motors goes into arrest, we can come back to the airport but this fog is going to get worse.” It makes me glad I’m a dictator and not a surgeon trying to explain the details of flying airplanes.

My experience is that even though sometimes frightening, passengers want the truth.

Passengers Want the Truth

No matter from which side of the cockpit door you toil, we all do our part in dealing with passengers. But the non-pilot public absorbs information more readily when delivered by the PIC, especially if we throw in a bit of candy. The recent Citation runway accidents (Citation Excel at OVE – 6,020 ft. runway, and a Citation Latitude at 0A9 – 4,529 ft. runway) highlight the need to talk to our passengers just like we do at the airlines about emergency exits and following the instructions of crewmembers. When you talk to non-pilots, take a moment to consider the audience. My experience is that even though sometimes frightening, passengers want the truth. Most folks are amazed by what we do and though intelligent, have no clue how we do it. It may be best to under exaggerate and soften the facts in order to lessen their anxiety while presenting the truth. Even during Halloween, try not to scare the crap out of them. Or their dog. 

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