One of the most daunting aspects of airline flying for newbie Pilots is talking to John and Jane Q Passenger via the PA system. It is especially tough for the ex-military Pilots because they rarely had to talk to the passenger group--if they even had any passengers! At an airline, addressing the passengers is something that happens several times a day. There are two extreme schools of thought regarding PA's:
- Don't say any more than you have to. ("Hi." And, "Were here.")
- Give the passengers a nonstop monologue the entire flight.
I have flown with followers of both extremes, and believe it or not, there are passengers who like both extremes. Angling to please the "majority" of the passengers in the middle, I have found a technique that seems to work the best: Frequency and brevity. (At least it yields me the least number of odd looks or cocky comments from my deplaning passengers.) The length of the flight and what time of day it departs all affect what and how many times you will hear from me inflight.
Except on early morning or late night flights (say "Hi" and let 'em snooze til we get there), I typically give my passengers the usual information prior to pushback: destination (you'd be surprised!); scheduled flight time; actual airborne time (early estimate); weather en route (if any); destination weather; and any pertinent additional information.
Once airborne, if the ride is smooth, I let the turn off the SEAT BELT sign and remind passengers to keep their seat belts fastened at all times when seated. If the flight is less than two hours, I'll probably only point out something outside if it is visible. Telling someone we are over New York City is no fun if you can't see it except perhaps when you have been droning over an undercast for a few hours. Then, a few reminders of where we are are OK.
This country is blessed with a great many wonderful things to see out the
window. Unfortunately, the Midwest doesn't have many of them. Other than a few cities, rivers, or lakes, the Midwest is one giant farm from Ohio to the Front Range of the Rockies. Going east from the West Coast is tough because you have lots to see for the first hour and a half and then.... Phoenix to Baltimore can get pretty quiet after Colorado except for hourly updates on position and arrival time.
Arrival PA's are fairly canned as well: time to take your seats; we are descending where the weather is great and our arrival time; and barring any unexpected Air Traffic Control (ATC) delays, we should be 15 minutes early. The most important part of the arrival PA is the sincere thanks directed at those who make our airline a success.
Weather often poses a whole "nuther" set of problems.
Often, we are held at the gate in a "groundstop" where we cannot takeoff until a predetermined time set by ATC. The gate personnel will usually pass that information to passengers prior to boarding. If I am at the gate, I will usually pull up the weather on the gate boarding gate podium computer and turn the screen around and brief the passengers who want to know what the delay is all about. That lets the folks know that I would love to board up and go right now, but I cannot.
Delays off the gate are far more problematic, especially with the media attention directed at airlines holding their passengers "hostage" onboard the aircraft for several hours prior to takeoff. An hour is my limit. If I cannot reasonably expect to be airborne in one hour, then I will not board and push off the gate. However, when working with ATC, deciding to go or stay is often a tough call. A few examples:
Las Vegas (LAS): We are heading to Raleigh-Durham (RDU) and are issued a 1.5-hour delay. We delay our boarding and I brief the passengers at the gate computer. Thirty minutes prior to our ATC assigned flow time (takeoff time plus or minus two minutes), we start boarding up. As we pushback and call for taxi, ATC informs us we are now delayed at least another two hours! I immediately arrange for an unoccupied gate where we deplane passengers and wait. At 50 minutes before our revised flow time, ATC calls and moves our flow time up 30 minutes. Due to a few "missing" passengers we cannot locate in the terminal area, we miss our flow time and are issued another "wheels up time" 30 minutes later. In this case, delay created more delay, and then, an unrealistic shortterm change in flow times made us yet later still.
New Orleans (MSY): As we taxi out for Houston (HOU), ATC calls and advises that HOU is about to start a groundstop due to thunderstorms. We opt to sit on the ground for 30 minutes awaiting an update from ATC. In that time, I advise the folks and then call SWA Dispatch to see what their weather radar shows. His estimate is for no more than 45 minutes to an hour of more delay. Based on that information, we wait at the end of the runway for further developments. I advise my passengers of what I know. At the 30-minute update, ATC extends our groundstop one more hour. I advise the passengers and tell them based on what my Dispatcher has told me, that I believe the groundstop will be lifted well prior to this additional hour delay. Everyone is happy except one passenger who is upset we are not returning to the gate to deplane and wait out the delay.
I explain to the passengers that ATC arranges their takeoff priority on those best able to make the soonest departure. If we return to the gate, we will be unable to make an earlier departure should the flow period be shortened and that will mean all the other planes waiting to go to HOU will be in front of us. That will delay us at least a half hour more.
As I expected, ATC calls and announces the groundstop to HOU is cancelled and asks us how long it will be before we are ready for takeoff. Five minutes after notification, we are rolling down the runway heading for HOU. Total delay time: 50 minutes, 40 minutes less than the second ATC update told us it would be.
LAS: About to depart LAS for Phoenix (PHX) on the last flight of the night, we are informed by clearance delivery that ATC has issued a groundstop to PHX due to thunderstorms. Our delay is set for at least an hour (according to ATC) with an update at that time. Again, I call Dispatch and ask what the weather situation is in PHX and am advised the thunderstorm dumping on the airport now is almost done and should be moving off slowly to the north. With this information, and the fact that the Operations Agent needs this gate for a flight arriving in about 20 minutes, I elect to push off the gate in expectation of a shortened groundstop period.
We advise Ground Control that we have to depart our gate and would like a parking spot close to the runways. They issue us a location, and before we get there, we receive a reroute (alternate flight plan), sending us south and into PHX from the west. We are then informed the groundstop to PHX has been lifted and we are now released to PHX. Because we are the closest to the runway, we are first in line, and ATC asks, "How soon can you be ready for takeoff?" Scant minutes later, we blast off south along the Colorado River, and when I check the estimated arrival time on the Flight Management Computer, it shows we will arrive only five minutes after scheduled arrival time. All because we were ready to go with a good idea what was about to happen in PHX.
Southwest Airlines prides itself on keeping the passenger informed. Whether in the boarding area, inflight, or waiting for your bags in baggage claim, we want you to know what we know. It may not be the news you were hoping for, but as soon as we know something, we want you to be aware of it too. We do not like to keep our passengers in the dark.
In situations where our departure airport has nice weather but our destination weather is threatening to delay or divert us, I always let the passengers know before departure what we are up against:
- The weather may go down at our destination (below landing minimums).
- We have extra gas so we can hold if necessary and wait out the weather.
- If that doesn't work, we have a good weather alternate and plenty of gas to get there. Once there, we can quickly re-fuel and get back in the game if necessary.
Armed with this information, the passengers know we may have to hold, go-around, or divert. They can make plans accordingly. Once, I was flying from Midland, Texas, to Dallas, and a line of thunderstorms was planned to roll though Dallas about our arrival time. I pre-briefed the passengers on the ground about the delays en route, as well as my idea of how things might unfold. At that time, we had seatback telephones on the plane. Unbeknownst to me, one of our passengers happened to be the president of major oil company, on his way to a very important meeting.
With my advance play-by-play explanation of what was most likely to come; a running account of what was actually happening to us; and the final word that we had been cleared to Love Field after only a short delay, the oil company president was able to call his chauffeur and keep his company appraised about whether or not he was going to make his meeting. He made it and sent me a very nice thank-you letter which pretty much validated in my mind that passengers thirst for the truth in honest updates, not varnished, over-optimistic guesses. When dealing with Mother Nature or maintenance issues, you simply have to expect delays at times.
As a passenger, I expect the truth in reasonably frequent updates. And my passengers get nothing less.