Th following article appeared in my Sunday column 'Un Intended' in the New Indian Express.
Incoherent Crews At 30, 000 Feet
There are times in life when communication becomes extremely important. Times like when you are flying 30000 ft high in an airplane and you have no clue about what to do except put your seat belts on and take them off. In such times one should understand what the crew is saying - else its curtains. So when I was aboard this plane recently and realized that I could not understand a word, I got worried.
We were flying smoothly along at 30000 ft when this voice came on. ‘Goood evenin las n gentm, this is your capn Ra Sug speaig …’. I got worried. If he was the captain why was he speaking like he was faraway? Was someone holding him hostage? Was he slurring? Was he getting off the plane at 30000 ft? Was he speaking from some remote location? Then I suddenly remembered that almost all the pilots I’ve heard, speak this way. Maybe the stress of flying makes them speak in this cryptic fashion. Or maybe they have some special flying instrument in their throat that makes it difficult to speak normally. Or maybe they are trained to speak in a secret code to throw off unwanted elements from their tracks. It made sense from a security perspective. I am pretty sure no one would understand what he said without using a secret code. I sympathized with the lot of the pilots. Though they had highly paid jobs, wore smart uniforms and were surrounded by pretty airhostesses, this did not seem right. Our pilot sounded like he needed help.
The copilot came on some time later, surprisingly loud and clear. I think we could have heard him even if he didn’t use the mike and he was still on ground. He rambled on about the wonderful weather, how high we were flying etc in an obvious attempt to impress the air hostesses. ‘I hope you have a great time and a great time was had by you and we are happy to give you a great time because we are here to give you…’ I think at that point the captain shut off the system or strangled the copilot with the mike because there was an abrupt sound and an awful silence after that. I prayed that the copilot was better with his flying (wherever he was) because I didn’t want to go round and round in circles for sure. One curious thing was that the copilot seemed to have better instruments to speak with. Not that marble instrument that the pilot was stuck in the throat with.
This time I paid keen attention to the airhostesses when they spoke, unlike the first time when they flailed their arms and distracted me. The airhostess spoke English like she was a foreigner. I understood nothing. If foreign accents are difficult, Indian foreign accents are impossible for me. To my surprise she spoke Hindi in the same accent as well. I understood nothing again. Now I was worried. I mean if we don’t understand a word of what the pilot, copilot and airhostesses say, how can we follow anything in a crisis? What if they ask us to sit quietly and we jump off the plane, or what if we open emergency doors instead of shutting them tight? That would be disastrous at 30000 ft.
I have a solution though. I think they should do what the satellite television guys have done to improve communication. If airlines use subtitles whenever the crew wishes to speak, we can stop putting on and taking off our seat belts for everything.