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…”

Crap.

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.

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

  1. Andrew says:

    Good stuff. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thanks for make me laugh – multiple times even! Great post.

  3. SEAN says:

    Fantastic post. It reminds me of a JetBlue flight I took in 2008 from JFK to Las Vegas. I cant recall the captains name, but it went something like this… Good morning from the flight deck, welcome abord Jetblue flight 191 with non-stop service to Las Vegas I’m captain John, 150 people say all at once “hi John!” the entire plane breaks out into laughter. After a few moments, he completes his anouncement while passengers look at one another trying to figgure out what just happened

  4. How much time do they spend training you how to lean against the cockpit door frame looking bored while a F/A stands next to you saying ‘Bye, bye-bye, bye, bye….”……LOL

    I always feel like I should be asking the pilot a question like you are all standing there waiting to be asked something. But what we all should be doing is telling the pilot thanks for getting us here. I walked off a bus (city, shuttle, etc) and told the driver thanks, but don’t recall every saying that to a pilot standing there as we exit. I know I’ve say ‘bye’ back, but that’s it. I must make a mental note to start doing that…..EVERYONE REMEMBER THAT ALSO.

    It’s like on long wide-body trips where a pilot comes out in uniform an walks around the cabin. You feel like you should be chatting with him/her and asking questions about the airplane. But no one ever says the relief pilot is walking around and there are still two pilots in the cockpit, so I see some people have looks on their face like ‘who’s flying the plane’.

    I don’t think modern day pilots like to talk on the p.a. for some reason, years and years ago, some could be really long winded and on a long day flight would point out everything along the way. Funny with so much automation in the cockpit you would think pilots would be bored and want to talk on the p.a. just to have something to do.

    When I worked for TWA (late 80′s-early 90′s) , the one thing I never got tired of was listening to stories about the old days from the long-timers (more polite then saying old-timers).

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

    That was just to good!

    • David, I’ve noted that the long announcements are gone as well. I think most people now adays tune these out, and airlines have started giving guidance to keep it short and sweet. I know JetBlue tries to keep the announcements to a minimum to keep them out of the way of the televisions.

      I used to remember back in the day when you were coming into a hub airport the flight attendant would read off a list of connecting gates, I haven’t heard that in years!

      • james says:

        I’ve actually had these announced on two UAL flights this year. The most recent this week returning from New Orleans.

        See my post below – I cringed when they announced they’d be announcing Denver’s connections from Anchorage, Aspen, Billings…. (Actually they announced by times, which made it even worse as I had no idea when they’d stop…)

      • JamesK says:

        Delta actually tells its pilots working Shuttle flights (LGA to DCA and BOS) to keep announcements as short as possible, since the typical passenger is a businessperson trying to get work done during the flight. One of the reasons my dad avoided flying Southwest, particularly on intra-Texas flights, on business trips was all the falderall the F/As carried on during the flight. He says he made the mistake once of admitting to an F/A that he was on his first Southwest flight, and he had to go to the galley and get serenaded over the PA.

        A couple of weeks ago, I took an Air Canada Jazz flight from Victoria, BC (YYJ) to YVR, blocked out at 23 minutes and only 39 miles direct over the Strait, so everyone was connecting to another flight. It was kind of interesting to hear a whole bunch of places mentioned that I’d never heard of (“Smithers, B14. Quesnel, B7. Fort Saint John, B2.”) or that sound funny to people from the US (“Kamloops, B1. Sandspit, B9. Regina, A12.”).

  5. Court says:

    Thanks guys.

    David,

    There’s a whole book worth of things said while passengers were getting off the aircraft. I’ve actually been tipped after a particularly smooth landing.

    I had people who would ask if I flew for the navy after a hard landing. We had pax who would ask if I was old enough to fly, and after a long day of dealing with these people, I would just say “no.”

    The technique on greeting passengers after a flight is to vary up the comments. I had a rythm of “good bye, see ya, farewell, watch your head, don’t say I didn’t warn you, good bye…”

  6. Oliver says:

    Great post. And that Niagara Falls announcement was perfect!

  7. Randy says:

    My most memorable PA was by a flight attendent. Landing on the short Orange County runway of 5,700 feet, a US Airways 737 pilot bounced the aircraft off the runway on his first attempt to return to earth. The second landing after the bounce was a “firm” Navy landing as if he was trying to catch the 3-wire.

    The Flight Attendent got on the PA and announced, “Please stay seated while Captain Kangaroo bounces what’s left of the plane to the gate.” Needless to say, the flight station door stayed close as we deplaned.

  8. JayB says:

    It seems like way back when there was a third person in the cockpit, a flight engineer, I guess, we had some of the most marvelous, lengthy announcements ever made. I will always recall the UA guy who explained where we will be going, what we will be seeing, on the left side, on the right side, careful not to short-change either side, and a little history, for every State, for every few miles, of the entire mapped out route from IAD to SFO. He took forever to explain all this.

    And sure enough, he’d come back on, every half hour or so, updating us on everything. I’m sure there were a couple of business-types praying that he would please shut up! But, you could hear in his voice, he loved doing this.

    Of course, the most powerful PA annoucement some of us have heard, in the darkest reaches of a winter night, out over the Atlantic, midway between but not close to anywhere…”Ladies and Gentelmen, this is your captain…if there is a doctor onboard, could they come to the front of the cabin!”

    No one talks, sleep has left us, what….! We land. We look around, wondering if maybe someone on the flight deck had…well, we didn’t want to ask…and life went on, or so we hoped.

    • Court says:

      Jay,

      In the new world of IFE’s that freeze during every PA, I absolutely abhore cockpit PA’s. I was on a flight from Montreal to Toronto this morning and the moving map showed us climbing through 14,000 feet before my tv show even started. With the safety video, welcome PA’s, mention of what you can buy, oh and don’t forget about our frequent flier program, then 15 minutes of commercials, did I mention our frequent flier program?, all in English and then repeated again in French, I spent more time being interrupted from my show than actually watching it.

  9. IHSW says:

    Fantastic post. Despite all I have flown, I feel like I always get the most perfunctory, emotionless announcements. Every so often a, “If you look out the left side of the cabin you’ll see the Grand Canyon,” delivered with all the excitement of a 17 year old about to take an Algebra test. It’s too bad, because it’s true: Hearing from the captain is enormously soothing in the strangest way. I like hearing a calm and professional yet enthusiastic voice coming from up front, since I regard everything a pilot does as one step away from complete voodoo.

    That being said, my favorite was on a UA flight, a few minutes out of O’Hare where the pilot came on (presumably to note our cruising altitude or flight time or whatever) And said,

    “Hi, This is your captain spe… oops.” And that was it. Didn’t hear another peep the rest of the flight (which was completely uneventful — no turbulence, no nothing). That was the most disquieting “oops” I’ve ever heard.

  10. james says:

    I for one wish am sick of so much “PA chatter.” Please stop talking so much about nothing! Be brief, concise, and to the point regarding service and safety. I give my full attention and respect for that. Do the mileage points, bathroom rules and any offers and what nots as quickly as possible and be done with it. Even with earplugs the volume is REALLY loud lately with endless chatter about credit card offers, movies and the rules (repeated ad nauseum.)

    On one of my next regular DEN-ORD or DEN-Socal flights I’m going to time (with my iPhone stopwatch) how many minutes of the 2.5 hour flight is devoted to someone talking. I’d say at least 15. That’s doesn’t see like a lot but when it’s a minute here, then two minutes 20 minutes later it’s just a complete interruption – and makes it really impossible to truly “sit back and enjoy the flight.”

    I had a 6am DEN-ORD flight a few months back. Was sleeping, WITH earplugs as I usually wear inflight. FAs made the “snack box” announcement from the front. No problem I guess to announce food service. But then as they’re walking down the aisle one loudly barks “Snack Box?” “Snack Box?” every other row. Understand it’s early morning and people still want quiet time and possibly sleep. If one wanted a snack box they’d be ready for it!

    Similarly – Why do you have to make an announcement that you’ll be collecting trash, then loudly announce it while walking down the plane? Let people enjoy their book, entertainment or the view in peace. There’s enough cabin noise among passengers as is.

    (Landing isn’t much better when the announcements start up again before the plane’s even off the runway and don’t stop til the jetway clunks over…)

    Just a friendly rant. I appreciate the FAs and their duties – but please ease up on the mic.

  11. Toni says:

    My late husband loved to mispronounce places when directing pax to see the sights during his PAs. The “Saltine Sea” & “San Juan Cappuccino” are a couple I remember. When heading back to DFW he would usually announce to all the Texans on board that they were back in “God’s Country” when they flew over the state line.

  12. Frank V says:

    B747-200 NWA, Climbing out of Manila
    “Everyone, look to your left, I mean right, Mount Pinatubo is finally erupting!”

  13. Sean says:

    I was on an America West flight, on final approach to PHX. As we were flying over ASU stadium, the pilot comes on the PA and says …. ‘those of you on the left side of the plane can see U2 playing in the stadium below’. Of course, people on the right side of the plane got up to rush over and see (the flight was pretty empty). The Flight Attendant got on the PA and told everyone to SIT DOWN. The pilot came back on and said ‘Sorry’.

Leave a Reply

Please use your real name or nickname instead of your company name or keyword spam.