I was in the back of the airplane, nestled in for the ride home in row 7. Having just finished a red-eye flight, I was happy to turn a blind eye to everything, lay my head against the sidewall, and doze my way back to Atlanta. I was in full zombie mode, having disengaged my brain the moment I walked off my flight from Phoenix.
Even though I was seven rows back from the front and completely uninvolved with the present flight, I sensed something wasn’t in order as departure time came and went. The jet bridge was still connected, and a couple calls between the aft galley and the flight deck rang back and forth. It was the airline equivalent of Cousin Eddie cheerfully delivering the bad news to Clark Griswold: None of the toilets would flush.
In the sort of move that would make the company proud, the captain climbed from his seat, picked up the handset in the forward galley, and faced the rows of faces who were ready to be on their way south. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We’ve got a minor issue with our lavatories—they’re both inop—and we’ve got maintenance on the way to give things a look-see. Hopefully, we’ll be on our way soon, but we’ll be delayed here for a few minutes at least. Sit tight for now. Thanks.”
No sooner had the captain hung up the phone than a handful of passengers stood up and walked to the nearest toilet, figuring it was as good a time as any for a potty break. God bless the flight attendants who had to re-explain that lavatories are toilets, and that they weren’t working, and could the passengers please just sit back down to wait like everyone else.
As the captain had turned back to the flight deck, we could see he felt as if he’d done something—and, indeed, he’d put in a good effort. But in properly calling things what they were in aviation jargon, “lavatory” and “inop” (for “inoperable”), the meaning had sailed right over everyone’s heads. Couple that with the fact that nobody really listens to instructions relayed over the PA system, as evidenced by noses sticking out of oxygen masks anytime there’s a depressurization, and the outcome of passengers lined up for toilets that didn’t flush was inevitable.
The airline industry, and aviation as a whole, for that matter, is built on an alternate version of English. While we call it a lavatory, most folks would refer to it as a bathroom, toilet or loo. And when it’s out of order, if you’re trying to communicate clearly, “inoperable” is meaningless. “The toilets are clogged” would be a lot more meaningful, but we’re so steeped in the idea that professionals use the proper names for things that sometimes we forget that we’re almost never speaking to professionals when we address the folks in back.
And then there are the acronyms. Today, GPS is universally understood, as it guides drivers, boaters, flyers, bikers and hikers alike, so it’s relatively safe to use in conversation with the folks in back. Beyond that, almost every system in the airplane is comprised of acronyms, and if we’re honest about things, a lot of us have to hit the books yearly to remember what those acronyms stand for.
Simplifying the message helps a lot, but sometimes, there’s just no good way of doing it. A month after Cousin Eddie wrecked the toilets for my commute home, we were taxiing out from Boston on the way to Denver. A very subdued status message appeared, informing us of a degradation of the airplane’s approach capabilities. “CAT 3 NOT AVAILABLE,” it read. As we flipped switches, spun knobs and mashed buttons, it became evident that we had a pretty significant failure despite the inconspicuous warning—Flight Director 1 was no longer available, and the map on the captain’s multifunction display only showed data when its range was adjusted to match mine. His FMGC (the Flight Management Guidance Computer) had quietly rolled over and died, a ghosting of the aviation sort. We pulled into a pad off the side of a taxiway to try a system reset as prescribed in our aircraft’s operating manual. That failed to change anything. As the captain dialed maintenance control, he handed me the handset, a clear nonverbal command to update our folks in back. “We’ll be rolling again in three minutes,” I cheerfully told the ground controller. Then, I picked up the handset for the public address system and promised a quick reset to one of our two GPS receivers before we’d be on our way.
Fifteen minutes later, I was apologizing and explaining we were doing a full reset. We had started out taxiing for a quick departure with both engines running. We fired up the APU (the small turbine engine in the tail) and shut one engine down. Pretty soon after that, we shut down the second engine. It was clear that we weren’t going anywhere fast.
Fifteen minutes after that, I was thanking everyone for their patience as we were on our fourth reset, and the captain was diving into the books while still on the phone with our maintenance and engineering department to see how many system deferrals we’d be applying to the airplane.
An hour after we left the gate, I was telling folks that the documentation almost outweighed the fix when it came to these things and that we had about another five minutes of filling out the logbooks and applying stickers so we’d be legal to go.
In the meantime, Boston had changed runways, so we had to run the data for a takeoff from runway 22R. “Oh, and it’s your leg,” the captain announced as he stuck a deferral sticker over his autopilot button. After another 25 minutes, we were airborne.
Did I tell the folks in back that the captain’s autopilot had failed? No, I didn’t. Technically, there are two autopilot channels, and while they’re generally associated with the pilot or co-pilot, you can run either one from either seat. The only difference is an additional half-inch reach to engage the cross-side autopilot. I also didn’t even bring up the flight directors because trying to explain what they do while still emphasizing that trained professional pilots can fly an airplane without them was just too complex.
What I did tell everyone was that one of our GPS units had failed but that we had multiple systems and that we’d be just as safe flying to Denver that night as on any other occasion.
Halfway across the continent, I stepped out of the flight deck for a bathroom break. The flight attendant in the galley made a moment of small talk as she dug my can of soda water out of the galley cart.
“Hey, back in Boston, did anyone seem to understand what I was saying when I made the announcements about the delay?”
“Pretty sure they didn’t have a clue,” she said. “But you gave updates regularly and set expectations for when folks could plan on being airborne or hearing from you again, and that’s good enough.”
But “good enough” means there’s room to improve, and as professional aviators, we all strive for that goal. We all strive for accuracy and precision with our flying; in doing the same with our communication to non-pilots, we often miss the mark. Kind of like when you hear a pilot make an arrival announcement to the cabin by reading off the arrival ATIS—yes, as a passenger, I’ve heard the runway in use and altimeter setting, but the information conveyed should be pertinent to the recipient. As far as the arrival announcement, I pare that information down to arrival time and weather in general terms. Sunny? Cloudy? Will they need an umbrella…or a parka?
And when things break, instead of trying to describe the failure, I now try to focus on the impact on the passengers. First of all, will there be a delay? Will passenger comfort be impacted? If the autopilot is busted, that’s no impact to them. If the wifi is out, folks will want to download their work projects or streaming videos before departure. After all, if we’re honest, losing connection to social media is a much bigger deal than pilots having to work through a complex equipment deferral upfront. It’s all a matter of perspective and learning how to look at problems through the customers’ eyes.
Do you want to read more Words Aloft columns from Jeremy King? Read “A Flight To Saint Thomas Turns Sour” here.