Just Key the Mic and Start Talking – You’ll Figure It Out (Guest Post)

Cranky is on a much-needed vacation and won’t be responding to emails this week. Fortunately, before I started drinking too heavily, I put some posts live. Today, Court Miller takes us through the terrifying world of P.A. announcements. (Seriously.)

“Just key the mic and start talking. You’ll figure it out.”

That’s probably the single worst advice I’ve ever been given as a pilot. Public announcements (P.A.’s) from the cockpit can be utterly terrifying as I was finding out at 30,000 feet over western New York. It was my first flight with passengers in the back and to my surprise, things were going pretty well. That changed about 80% of the way between Cincinnati and Rochester, NY when my training captain noticed Niagara Falls.

“Why don’t you make a P.A. and point out the Falls?”
  “And say what?” I asked.
“Just key the mic and start talking. You’ll figure it out.”

Again, not the reassuring words you expect to hear the first time you address 50 passengers relying on you to bring them from 500 mph and five miles high to a stop on a mile long strip of concrete.

Flash back to my training, which was one week of indoctrination, four weeks of detailed aircraft systems, three weeks of intense simulator sessions, and only 20 minutes worth of P.A. guidelines. You get my point. (It’s worth nothing that the 20 minutes of P.A. guidelines consisted entirely of an unfortunate story of a pilot who gave a P.A. in the voice of Ross Perot to a plane full of Ross Perot’s campaign staff. My notes on the subject filled all of one line: “Don’t talk like Ross Perot during a P.A.”)

I’m not afraid of public speaking, heck I quite enjoy it, but for some reason I kept seeing the image of 50 Ross Perot’s sitting behind me waiting for a reason to call the Chief Pilot’s office to have me fired. So what did I do? The only thing I could do, really. I picked up the mic and started talking.

“Folks, from the flight deck, good morning. We’re about 100 miles southwest of Rochester and will be beginning our decent soon. For those of you on the left side of the aircraft, if you’ll look left you’ll see Niagara Falls. For those of you on the right side of the aircraft…”


There’s nothing out there. I have 25 people waiting on bated breath for that sight to the south of us spectacular enough to rival Niagara Falls. My two-hour-old career flashed before my eyes as I keyed the mic once more.

“For those of you on the right side of the aircraft, if you look left, you’ll see the people looking at Niagara Falls.”

I distinctly remember breaking a sweat when I lied to the training captain saying it went well. It took me 3 weeks to finally garner the courage to check my mailbox in fear of finding that “see me” letter from the Chief Pilot. It never came, and eventually I started making P.A.’s at audible levels again.

Delivering the perfect P.A. is an art. Some choose to script everything out, others choose to simply not do any, and yet others ramble on for ages. My goal was to master the art of the perfect P.A. Spoiler alert: I never did.

There’s something about hearing that magic voice from the cockpit that seems to assuage the airline passenger. Such was the case on a stormy summer day in 2002 when our flight attendant asked us to make a P.A. to remind the passengers to keep their cell phones turned off. We had been first in line for takeoff with a line of 20 aircraft behind us and a wall of black clouds in front when the flight attendant made the request. I obliged:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, from the Flight Deck, we understand you’re anxious to tell those waiting on you in Appleton that your flight may be late, but safety is our number one priority. With the storms and with our reliance on our radar, it is extremely important that you keep your cell phones off.”

In itself, a fine P.A. The only problem was that while I was saying the words “keep your cell phones off,” my cell phone rang. Being the traditionalist I am, I like to have the loudest, simplest, ‘no mistaking Courtney’s cell phone from 30 yards’ ring. The good news is that half of the passengers had forgotten about it by the time we landed in Appleton. The bad news is the other half did not.

All told, I probably said something undeniably stupid over the P.A. at least once a month. Some were inadvertent, like the time I was excited to tell the people on a flight to Detroit that they were lucky enough to be on the first revenue flight for that aircraft. Turns out, some passengers took that to mean the plane had never flown before and a few asked to get off.

At other times, the stupid remarks were intentional. In 2005 it was difficult to find an airline that was not in bankruptcy. So I mentioned it:

“We’d like to thank you for flying with us today. We know that you have a choice when it comes to bankrupt airlines, and we’re glad you chose this one.”

As my career progressed and I realized that I wasn’t going to be fired for my P.A.’s, I became more bold.

“Unfortunately it looks like Atlanta has instituted a ground-stop program and it could be a two-hour delay. We do have some good news, though. The Captain and I just saved a bunch of money by switching our car insurance to Geico.”

You’d be surprised how well that worked.

“Folks, from the flight deck, we’ve stopped short of our gate to allow for some traffic, however we do have an indication up here that some of you have already unbuckled your seat belts. We’ll need that indication to go out before we can proceed.”

We could hear the clicks of the seat belts from the cockpit. That one was a flight attendant favorite.

Finally the time came for me to step out of the cockpit and into a different career. For those who have made the switch, you know what an internal struggle it can be. I spent a month saying good-bye to my window office, and reflected back on the times we took the aircraft out and how she always brought us back. It was during this time of introspection that I was able to chat with a new pilot just starting his career. He was nervous about the job ahead of him, but nothing worried him more than the public announcements.

As I packed my flight bag and stepped out of the cockpit, I could think of only one piece of advice to give him:

“Just key the mic and start talking. You’ll figure it out.”

Courtney is the co-creator of the Airplane Geeks Podcast, founder of AirlineEmpires.net, currently works for a commercial aircraft OEM, and is a self-proclaimed stud muffin. You can find him on LinkedIn or Twitter @miller22.

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