“It seems very pretty,” she said when she had finished it, “but it’s rather hard to understand!” (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.)
– From Through the Looking Glass and what Alice found There, by Lewis Carroll.

Earlier today I had a discussion with a journalist regarding a TV programme about decompression events in aircraft, for which he had done the research. This leads me to my blog’s musings for today: What influence does the crew have on passengers’ experience and their recollections after an incident? We’re not discussing serious accidents here, only the run-of-the-mill events such as go-arounds, diversions, technical problems and, yes – pressurisation problems.

“This is your captain speaking…”

You would hear these words on almost every commercial flight. It is probably the most quoted sentence when passengers discuss their experiences in the air. Yet very few people would be able to tell you what the captain, or the cabin crew for that matter, had actually said. Not always because the announcements sounded like some comedian’s rip off – simply because people do not pay attention.

I’ve discussed passengers’ behaviour during emergencies before (see my previous post Evacuate, Evacuate! Are you ready?) as well as the power of the media in Good News vs Bad News.

What concerns me here is the widely disparate perceptions passengers report after an incident. “Report” is the correct verb here – anyone with a cellphone becomes an instant reporter and social media allow immediate “reports” on events as they unfold.

Unfortunately, most passengers are not experts in matters aviation and, much like Alice we don’t want to confess that we simply have not the faintest idea of what is happening, has just happened or had happened. However, cellphones allow us to become instant and expert commentators.

Phrases such as “near death experience”, “hysterical cabin crew” or “terrified passengers” abound. Snippets of accurate, factual information are few and far between. “Facts” often prove to be completely wrong perceptions – in one recent event a passenger commented that “the person who tweeted this could not have been on the same aircraft!”.

The dangerous reality is that a perfectly safe airline can have its reputation in tatters and face bankruptcy as a result of 140 instant characters.

Most airlines, like most businesses have an online presence and a department dedicated to following social media. They hope to catch the complaints and negative comments, attempting to counter them – essentially damage control. Unfortunately modern humans have an incredibly short attention span and by the time your positive reply hits social media, we are already onto the next 140 characters of interest.

During the QF32 emergency social media declared that the A380 had crashed, even while Captain De Crespigny and his crew were working the problem and getting their passengers back safely. Fortunately the hysteria calmed down once the facts became clear.

Have a look at this YouTube Video clip from News24:

Despite the headline, I think the passengers do not look too concerned – very few are wearing their oxygen masks, most have the time and presence of mind to turn their cellphones on to film the goings-on.  (Just joking – they were on anyway…) There is the sound of a baby crying, understandable as infants cannot equalise quickly and their ears would hurt with any pressure differential.

So where did the reports of “terrified” passengers originate?

Other social media reports indicated trauma and high drama – clearly not everyone was as composed as the people visible in this clip. I saw reports of “oxygen not flowing” – probably from those who forgot the briefing to give a tug to start it flowing.

Which brings me to the role of the crew – all professionals, all trained to deal with these situations. However, although most airlines would provide standard announcements for various events – some pilots and cabin crew are simply better able to communicate and calm frayed nerves.

When United 232 lost all hydraulics and all controls when the no. 2 engine failed catastrophically over Iowa, passengers spoke afterwards about Captain Al Haynes being “firm, but soothing” while informing them via the PA system.

Similar complimentary comments were made about the way the crew of QF32 handled the PA announcements.

QF32 Fire engines

QF 32  (Pic: criticaluncertainties.com)

As pilots we make decisions in difficult situations based on the old A-N-C acronym – Aviate, Navigate, Communicate. Our primary task is to fly the aircraft, whatever the situation. Once the flight path is under control, we need to fly it somewhere – the navigate bit – whether it be to a diversion airfield or to a ditching. Then we tell people what we are doing – ATC, our crew, and when time allows, our passengers.

It would appear that we should improve that last little bit – keeping passengers informed and comforted could avoid most of the negative and destructive social media rants.

In fact, after Captain De Crespigny had debriefed the passengers of QF32, TV crews were eager to record the dramatic stories of survival which these passengers surely had to tell – to their dismay, most of the passengers had no complaints and only praise for the crew.

Pilots train exhaustively for any possible mishap. Dealing with incidents and problems is the easy part  – how you address the passengers when they feel like Alice is a major challenge. However, allowing them to make sense of our “inverted world”, reading in reverse in the mirror could allow them to slay their Jabberwocks and turn the negative experiences and comments into compliments.




One thought on “Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

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