BALPA’s Communications Officer and former BBC Presenter, Nancy Jackson, looks at what makes a good public announcement.
As a passenger, when I hear the ‘bing bong’ that indicates the pilot is going to communicate with me, I’m hopeful it’s to tell me about the pleasant weather at my destination rather than to command me to “brace for impact!” But in either situation, communication is vital.
On one hand, it’s a matter of safety. In an emergency, you might be so busy that despite really wanting to explain what is going on the priority must be dealing with the issue and talking to Air Traffic Control. But if the situation does allow it, a good public announcement (PA) can inform passengers and help them prepare for what is to come. It can be a matter of life and death.
When Captain Haynes prepared for an emergency landing at Sioux City in 1989 after his aircraft lost all hydraulics, he gave passengers instructions to prepare for what lay ahead:
“…As you must be aware by now, we're having some control difficulties with the plane. We're attempting an emergency landing in Sioux City. We'll be landing in approximately eight minutes. We've got about as much control over the plane as we can get, but I need you to understand this is going to be a crash landing. Please review your emergency procedures. This is going to be worse than anything you've ever been through before, and you need to be ready. We will do everything in our power to get everyone to the ground, but we need your cooperation.”
This must have been a difficult PA to make. Using the word ‘crash’ would undoubtedly have made passengers extremely anxious. At the same time his message is informative, instructive, authoritative and reassuring. Of the 296 people onboard, 185 survived the crash thanks to the actions of the crew.
On the other hand, a public announcement is a customer service that can improve the flying experience. Pilots can use the PA to impart information and entertain. An informative PA can placate delayed passengers and a professional and authoritative sounding pilot may reassure nervous or disruptive passengers.
What makes the perfect PA?
Before joining BALPA as Media and Communications Officer, I was a presenter at the BBC, so I’m confident about speaking to the public. I undertook years of elocution lessons (to soften my rather strong Staines Town accent ) and had training throughout my career on how to speak clearly and get my point across. For pilots in some airlines, PA training amounts to a booklet handed out during initial training, and a spattering of guidance given during line training and route checks. In many ways, handling communication is left to individual pilots, so here are a few things you could consider:
Who is the audience?
A good announcement is one people pay attention to. But the ’audience‘ onboard an aircraft is diverse. Business people, families, honeymooners are all travelling for different reasons. Some will be confident frequent fliers, others could be nervous. Very few will be pilots with technical understanding, so you need to pitch your public address appropriately. Make it clear and simple. Avoid jargon. Terms like ’APU‘, ’ATC‘ and ’slot‘ may not be widely understood.
What do I need to get across?
There is a big difference in a scripted PA directed at cabin crew and one that is aimed at passengers. Announcements informing passengers of a delay, technical problems, emergency or simply of something interesting to be seen out of the window, may be made off the top of your head. You need to work out what information is crucial to pass on.
What is the situation of a public announcement?
In an emergency, you may not have much time and flying the plane safely should be the priority. Captain Sullenberger only managed to tell passengers to “brace for impact” during his emergency ditching on the Hudson river.
At other times, the situation may be less pressing. When informing passengers of a delay or passing on information about a destination, what you say can be carefully considered.
It is also worth thinking about timing. Will the passengers be awake? Will you be disturbing them? Will the information enable them to plan their movements (for example, going to the loo before turbulence)?
Is what I’m saying clear?
There is no point making a public announcement if people can’t hear or understand it. Speak slowly and clearly. After flying my first solo in a Bulldog TK1 as a member of Southampton University Air Squadron, my instructor told me they’d had complaints from ATC about the “squeaky-voiced girl” making unintelligible finals calls! From then on, I made it a point to lower my voice and speak with clarity!
Am I using the right tone of voice?
Every announcement must be professional. It should reassure passengers that the people in the cockpit know exactly what they’re doing. There is no room for a “Don’t panic Mr. Mainwaring”-type announcement in an emergency!
Captain Eric Moody is an example of a pilot sounding cool under pressure. He remained calm during an encounter with a plume of volcanic ash in 1982:
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress."
There are times when a stern voice is appropriate. A PA to encourage people to take their seats ahead of turbulence may be more effective if the pilot sounds authoritative. Conversely, there is no need to sound like thunder when saying the destination is basking in glorious sunshine.
At times, pilots can be lighthearted and consider using humor. A BALPA member told me about a flight where the Captain introduced himself as Charles, the co-pilot as Richard and the flight engineer as Michael before saying, "that's right folks...we've got Chick, Dick and Mick looking after you today..."!
But be warned: while a good joke can go a long way, not everyone has the same sense of humor. Culture and language can make what is funny to one person, offensive to another and it’s difficult to judge an audience you can’t see or hear. Think carefully before cracking a joke.
Pilots have been known to use PAs to share interesting information and enhance the passengers experience. For instance, pilots flying to the Caribbean giving out the scores for cricket test matches. Pointing out amazing views, or phenomena such as the northern lights can also make a flight especially memorable. But remember, it can cause frustration if the once in a life time experience can only be enjoyed by passengers in window seats or on one side.
Going above and beyond
We know a great PA can entertain and inform and getting it right can save lives.
One last example is the captain who used the PA system to ask everyone onboard to keep an eye out for a missing yacht! The Captain lowered the Boeing 777 to around 5,000 feet so passengers could join the search and rescue operation. What's amazing is it worked. The boat was spotted, the yachtsman rescued and no-one seemed to mind the 40-minute additional flight time.
So, no matter if you love or loathe the microphone, it’s important to remember that the public address is a key part of the professional communication from the flight deck to the cabin. It’s your chance to speak directly to the passengers you serve and can be a tool that helps keep flights safe.