Aeronautical Randomness
Do you believe me?
December 5, 2014
18

The captain immediately caught my attention as soon as his voice started to broadcast over the PA system.

Like everyone else seated around me, I was interested to hear what he had to say.

“Ladies and gentlemen, due to the inclement weather, I’m afraid we’re going to have to cancel today’s trip.”

A collective groan filled the area.

The captain continued to explain that the weather conditions just wouldn’t permit safe operations.  A backup plan was being formulated and he would relay information as soon as it was available to him.  He thanked us all for our patience and understanding.  He closed by reiterating his sincere apologies for the disappointment he assumed we were all feeling.

When he concluded, the people around me broke into chatter.

I was extremely curious about their reactions, so I started eavesdropping on several conversations.

Everyone sounded disappointed, but not annoyed.

There were no discussions about poor customer service.

Not one person accused the captain of lying.

I didn’t hear any mention of the captain intentionally throwing a wrench in the gears to participate in some secretive union job action.

The threat of legal action was never uttered.

From what I heard around me, not one person articulated anything that challenged the captain’s expertise.  Everyone believed every word he said.

Does that sound unusual?

For a flight full of passengers, the buzz I described definitely wouldn’t be the norm.

However, I was on a very large ship cruising around the Caribbean with my family.

The captain making that announcement was the skipper of the ship and everyone around me was enjoying breakfast in the dining area.  We were anchored just outside the cruise line’s private island and the seas were too rough to board passengers onto the tenders to transport them to shore.  For safety reasons, the captain decided to cancel that port of call and continue on to Key West, FL.

I was disappointed for my kids, but I was equally intrigued by the reaction of the masses.

Sitting there eating my first of five meals that day, I realized that people still respect ship captains.

I hope that since you’re reading a pilot blog, you still hold some respect for the job we safely accomplish day after day, year after year.  I’m referring to the loss of respect of people who just don’t understand the aviation environment.

Last week, I had one of those flights from hell.  The aircraft arrived two hours late.  After boarding and taxiing to the runway, a light illuminated forcing us back to the gate for a lengthy MEL procedure.  As the mechanics completed the paperwork, two flight attendants went illegal and needed to be replaced.  The delay was lengthened further waiting for a fuel truck.

I know it was frustrating for the passengers and we did our best to keep them in the loop.

Apparently, it wasn’t good enough for some.

One of the flight attendants came up to the flight deck while the airplane was being fueled.  She said that one of the passengers wanted to know “when those damn pilots were going to give me some factual information?”  If the captain hadn’t been right in the middle of frying bigger fish, that passenger may not have joined us for the rest of the evening.

When we finally arrived at our destination, I did a quick Twitter search and found two other passengers complaining about our flight.

The first merely mentioned her frustration and lack of customer service provided by my airline.  The tweets were aeronautically uneducated in nature, but I understood why she was upset.

The second tweeter was determined that the flight delay was some sort of big conspiracy.  The pilots, mechanics, flight attendants and fueler were on a mission to ensure that his flight was four hours late.  Basically, all we told this man were lies, lies and more lies.

(If it wouldn’t have cost me my job, I would have loved to reply directly to the tweets and let him know one of the pilots actually read them.)

So, while the ship captain is still very well respected, many have lowered the airline pilot to a social punching bag.

Why?

Although a miniscule fraction of the population is qualified to pilot a cruise ship, most understand the basics of boating.  The vessel floats on the water and is pushed along at slow speeds.  When the seas rise, the ship rocks.  When it gets rough, everyone knows.  If the captain says it’s too rough to board a tender, everyone nods in agreement.

In aviation, we deal with so many more variables that people either cannot see or simply don’t understand.

The challenging reaction is to seek out the knowledge to learn more about the system and the problems we face on a daily basis.

The easy reaction is to start spewing accusations of lies and conspiracies.

Captain, thanks for making the decision to keep my family safe.

If you like what you read on this blog, please share the posts using the social media buttons.  Like most bloggers, I will continue to write if there appears to be interest in the material I publish.

About author

Renewed Pilot

I've endured a roller coaster career in the U.S. Aviation Industry. Currently flying the 737 on my third try with the same legacy carrier, I have also flown for a regional, fractional and start-up carrier. My piloting experience includes the 737, A320, 727, Citation Excel, Citation Bravo, Saab 340 and many light singles and twin engine aircraft. I reside in the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee.

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There are 18 comments

  • Brandon says:

    As a pilot, I have a tremendous amount of respect when flights are canceled for weather or maintenance. And I believe the captain when he speaks, as long as his information makes sense.

    But as a pilot I’m also in a unique position to evaluate the weather conditions and make a determination for myself. And what I find is that airlines regularly lie to their customers about “weather” problems, to avoid paying compensation.

    A plane can’t get from Chicago to Portland, so the next day’s flight is canceled. The airline cited weather. The true reason was “lack of equipment.”

    Another airline canceled a flight for weather on a day that was CAVU. Turns out that their crew arrived overtime due to weather delays at the departure point, and would be illegal to fly home the next day. That’s not a weather cancellation, that’s a lack of crew.

    I find that *pilots* tell the truth, but *airlines* do not. Sadly, most people don’t make a distinction between the two.

  • Andrew C. says:

    Great blog post as usual, Brian. As a passenger, someone who simply cannot understand all of the intricacies involved in flying a plane, I try to be the exception to the examples you cited above with those who take to Twitter after being inconvenienced.

    Last winter I was booked to fly from New York to SFO shortly after the New Year. My original flight was scheduled during the peak of the “polar vortex,” and due to the severe temperatures and inclement weather, I wound up being delayed 4 days. It was very frustrating; my life in San Francisco was essentially “on hold” until I was able to return. Was that the airline’s fault? No. I actually commended them for not asking their employees to work on the ramp in sub-zero temperatures.

    When people are angry, they usually need to off-load it onto someone. The gate agent, the airline, even the crew. Their schedule has been affected, and to them, their reason for needing that plane to take-off is the most compelling. Twitter is a medium in which it’s very easy to rant — it’s somewhat anonymous, and no one needs to see the direct effect their comments have on other people. There are ways in which passengers can voice frustration and do so in a constructive and efficient manner.

    People should remember that ,at the end of the day, the goal of the airline and the passenger is the same — planes don’t make money when they’re on the ground. When a pilot deems it’s unsafe to fly, we should be grateful they’re using their due diligence to keep us safe.

  • BobP says:

    Unfortunately I’ve come to take an airline captain’s advice with a grain of salt – mostly because I’ve caught them out before.

    By way of example, I recall a flight where a storm was rolling in as we boarded. I was hoping we’d high-tail it out of there before the storm got to us, but we weren’t that lucky. Fair enough. Except we’d be told “pushing back in 15 minutes” moments after I hear ATC (listening to live stream on my phone) advise delays of 45+ minutes. Happened several times that ATC would say one thing, crew would say something else.

    I recall sitting on the tarmac in the US for 90 minutes waiting to fly LAX to SFO. Weather the captain said. Beautiful day, and the weather conditions he described sounded fine (Granted, I’m not a pilot, but he described a typical day).

    Another flight where we flew 2/3rd’s of the way to the destination only to turn around and fly back to an alternate. Weather the captain said. Except when we landed many pax called their friends at the destination, who were at the airport waiting for them, to be told that other flights from the same origin were landing, and flights were leaving. No rain, no wind, just an ordinary evening. Weather, eh? Presumably not fuel, as it would have been quicker to press on to the destination. I’d speculate technical issue, as the origin airport has extensive maintenance facilities, where the destination has minimal. But if that’s it, why not just say so?

    Just three examples that spring to mind. Ground crew are often even more ‘flexible’ with the truth!

    “Your flight will be boarding in 30 minutes”. Really, the aircraft is not here and its only just left on the incoming sector. 2 hours later…

    But to be fair, I’ve also had some excellent service – I recall a flight that was massively delayed. Another aircraft arrived and the flight crew expected they were done for the day. They walked up the aerobridge to the gate bags in hand, turned around, powered the aircraft up again, and operated an extra sector (including an overnight stay) to get us to our destination. Didn’t get catered (fair enough), but we did get home 🙂 I did thank the crew for that one.

    • If you sat on the ground in LAX waiting 90 minutes to fly to SFO, the captain was not lying to you. (I’ve probably operated that particular segment over a hundred times.) SFO is one of our most delay prone airports. The runways are spaced very close together and the airport can handle a fixed arrival rate per hour. If there are any clouds in the sky and they cannot land parallel traffic, their acceptance rate gets cut in half. So, just like a four lane highway getting cut down to two, traffic starts to back up. The FAA starts delaying aircraft on the ground so they don’t have to hold in the air. Planes departing from closer airports (ie: LAX) often take a bigger hit because they must be sequenced into the flow of aircraft arriving from other destinations.

      So, even though the weather might be nice for you to go to the beach and get a tan, the aircraft may be delayed for weather. However, that same weather wouldn’t effect arrival rates at LAX, DFW etc…

      With your comment, you actually proved my point.

      – Brian

      (PS – I know I only addressed the one issue since it was the only one I was sure happened in the United States. But, always ask yourself, what the heck would the crew gain by lying to me?)

      • BobP says:

        Hi Brian,

        Thanks for the response – I’ll consider myself educated on the LAX/SFO delay 🙂 Begs the question – why didn’t the captain explain the issue, rather than leaving the pax to wonder why apparently good weather was in fact no good?

        The other issues were all within Australia 🙂

        What would the crew gain by lying?

        Maybe they think the excuse given will result in less backlash? We know the delay is 45 minutes, but we’ll tell them it’s 15, then another 15, then another 15 because that sounds better, and hey, we might get lucky.

        Maybe they’re complying with some corporate policy? If this happens, tell them that. ie, don’t tell them we’re diverting to an airport with better maintenance facilities (ie, convenience for the airline), just say the weather was bad at the destination and divert.

        I don’t know, but I’ve seen several industries where customers don’t believe explanations made by those qualified to make them (I work in one of those industries). My belief is that it comes from a history of excuses that are either untrue, or are explained in a way that the average punter believes they’re untrue.

        Cheers.

  • Holger says:

    The stickiness of the “weather” explanation has been discussed already. Especially when it’s used to explain lack of equipment or lack of crew.
    As a passenger I’ve heard bad explanations as well – sorry “crew came in to late yesterday and needed to rest” is just bad. One leg from the Airlines major hub … The airline could have expected that it was very clear early on that this particular crew would time out and deadhead a reserve crew to make sure the flight the next morning would depart on time. Oh and that “text message” tort me know about the delay could have gone out the second the crew went illegal … Not 30 min before departure when I ran out of options.
    Sorry – but something similar goes in your case. The late incoming plane and the mechanical issue – fine, bad luck. But the two flight attendants timing out and the fuel? Both were known risks with a high probability the second you turned around to had back to the gate and the folks of your airline needed to start looking for FA’s and fuel the moment you called for mechanics.

    I hope I didn’t offend you too much. I love reading your blog, I just can’t agree to 100% here.

    • You’re not offending me at all. You are complaining about airlines doing things better… I’m writing about pilots not being trusted.

      In the case of my flight, the airline did start looking for FAs as soon as we realized they may timeout. Unfortunately, in the real world, extra flight attendants don’t just sit at the gate in case a plane comes back. It takes time. Same with the fuel… We need to request it through dispatch and they send the request to the fueler. It takes time… That’s the system. The system may suck, but it doesn’t mean we lied to you.

      Since you brought up the crew rest issue… We are legally bound to have minimum rest between flights. If the last flight of the night gets delayed and the crew needs extra rest, how would dead heading a crew help? They’d need the same amount of rest. Even if they know about the delay hours in advance, there may not be time to get a reserve crew out to the airport.

      My airline took me off the last leg of my last trip for that exact reason. But, they had time to make it happen.

      Look… The point of this post was to show how people jump to their own conclusions without knowing how the system works. I agree that bad information is often given by gate agents who also don’t understand. But, if you pull aside a pilot and ask, 99% of us will give you a straight detailed answer… Even if it’s not what you want to hear.

  • Gina says:

    Thank you to you and your colleagues for the skills, expertise and patience that you possess in keeping us safe while flying.  It has not gone unnoticed in my book.  You are juggling long hours, time away from family, fatigue, packed planes, crowded airspace, awful weather plus all of the other variables. You must balance this while trying to meet the demands of your employer.  

    I personally have a higher level yet limited understanding of the airline industry than the average person so I wholeheartedly empathize with your frustration.    In my observation of friends, family, colleagues, and other passengers, I think this sense of entitlement and frustration is stemming from feelings toward the airline and the industry itself.  People watch the media and hear about increased fees, less space, higher ticket prices, delays while all the airline wants is to squeeze out more profit. Unfortunately, I think these feelings in turn get translated to the front line employees who are trying their hardest to provide the best service. 

    Please continue to make the decisions that keep us safe!! We should all be thankful someone is looking out for us!!

    • Thank you, Gina.

      As I mentioned in my other comment, there are definitely parts of the system that are broken. The system is complex with many variables people don’t understand. They assume the pilot is lying about a “weather delay” since their Uncle Bob said the weather was fine at home. They draw their own conclusions knowing nothing about FAA ground delay programs, traffic separation etc…

  • Jordan says:

    Love the post very well written.. As a young pilot I like to think I have a good understanding of the overall system and how it works. When it comes to delays most things are out of the airline and out of the pilots hands. The general public like seen in earlier post, want to blame it on someone. The idea that low ceilings in ksfo can affect flights around the country doesn’t sit well with people.Most people don’t know any better and need to take out the anger on someone. I think it comes down to a simple misunderstanding of how the whole industry works. I have nothing but admiration and respect for FO and Captains alike. The safety record created in commercial aviation can be directly linked to pilots like your self.
    Do airlines have a policy on how pilots communicate delays with passengers or is it just up to the individual pilot and as work load permits?
    Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks for the support.

      There is guidance, but not much is set in stone except for the extended tarmac delay rules. Then, there are very specific things we must mention at different time intervals.

  • Mike says:

    i find it interesting that even here, in a blog where you are describing people’s misplaced mistrust in flight crews… the comments reflect people’s mistrust in flight crews. I thought the cruise ship Captain was a good example.

    I’d venture that since the cruise ship captain is largely invisible, there is still a mystique. Pilots, for better or for worse are at least a little visible. There’s also the “iphone dispatchers” who believe they know more than the professionals because Siri told them so…

  • Brandon C says:

    Great post Brian! I am an aspiring airline pilot (PPL-ASEL, Instrument), and I absolutely can’t stand the disrespect that airline pilots receive from the people who entrust them with their lives. In a way I find it comical how their ignorance certainly does not give them bliss.

    While pilots certainly do not lie to passengers about issues concerning the flight, some pilots can be faulted to an extent for not providing enough information for passengers to understand the delay. I am speaking specifically about FAA flow control delays and any kind of “wheels up” time. During mechanical delays, pilots may be, and I quote “frying bigger fish”, so this is understandable. But when a fairly long flow control delay is given there is no reason not to explain it in layman’s terms to potentially grumpy passengers. I’m sure a majority of pilots do though.

    I am also a ramp agent at PWM for a company contracted to work United and JetBlue flights. Naturally I deal with a lot of fights that have been given flow control delays, since I handle flights going to such lovely locations as ORD, EWR, JFK, etc. Even as a ramp agent I’m always happy to chat with passengers and explain to them what has caused them to be delayed. This post inspired me to try to continue to handle these situations delicately when I break into the regional airlines, so long as it doesn’t interfere with operating the aircraft in any way.

    Once again, great post! Looking forward to the next one!

  • Cedarglen says:

    Sad, but oh so true, RP. Trust me: You’ll never hear that kind of crap from my lips – or fingers. -CG

  • PHLRick says:

    Very nicely written post.

    On the cruise ship, you are (in effect) at your destination–your destination moves around from one secondary destination to another (port to port), but you’re in no hurry.

    You’re comfortable, you’re with your family, and you’re eating good food in pleasant surroundings. When you get tired you can stretch out and sleep; when you get bored you can get up and wander and do many entertaining things.

    Hmmm… now how is that different from being a modern airline passenger in economy? A cruise ship passenger is in a much more accepting frame of mind.

    The knowledge and understanding gaps (such as a front moving through Ohio screwing up a flight between PHL and ORD, where the weather is beautiful) just make matters worse.

  • Justin says:

    I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog, but this post definitely resonated. I’m a train conductor for a commuter operator in the UK. If you guys are the punching bags of transportation, I hate to think where that leaves myself and my train driving colleagues ????

    Looking forward to reading the rest.

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