23

I think it's worth explaining that I fall on the autism spectrum, so certain answers that may seem extremely obvious to others are not at all obvious to me.

So I was on a flight recently (let's say, leaving from Los Angeles). I fly this route quite frequently, and I also happen to be an aviation enthusiast who collects logs of flights from pilots, and every time I board a flight, I hand the flight attendants a book, asking them to hand it over to the flight deck. That book clearly states on the cover, "I am an aviation enthusiast".

One day, I was flying this route again. I boarded the plane, handed my book to a cabin crew, and took my seat. A few minutes after taking off, the semi-secret signal that airlines use to indicate an emergency sounded, and all of the cabin crew quickly walked up to the front. I also noticed we were going off course. I got very tensed, and quickly opened up an online flight tracker using the plane's Wi-Fi service, and it said we were being diverted.

At this point, the cabin crew just acted normal, and told other curious passengers who noticed the course change that "nothing" was happening. The seat belt sign was off, and no announcement from the flight deck that we're returning to LAX had been made. I quickly walked up to the flight attendant, and asked why our flight was being diverted, showing them the flight tracker page saying that this flight was being diverted on my phone. They told me to return to my seat, which I did.

The trouble is, I feel very tensed not knowing what's going on if something goes wrong, which happens to be the exact opposite of other passengers' attitudes. In particular, I prefer to hear "we're diverting because engine 1 failed" than "nothing's happening". The flight deck announcement about this and the fact we were returning to LAX were made very late.

My question is, on a future flight, how (and when) do I tactfully ask the flight attendant what's going on and make myself less tensed, without triggering panic across the plane (assuming it's safe to ask them, and they're not doing any emergency preparations)? The method in which I asked on that earlier flight was likely the wrong way, because it was in the middle of the passenger cabin.

Please note: This is a strictly IPS question, and not an aviation question. In this case, the cabin crew wasn't doing anything, and (as I said in the original post) the seat belt sign was off when I got up to ask. I did not in any way interfere with the crew's duties. I'm asking in the context of this very same situation (safe to get up and will not disturb duties by asking).

By the way, here's the chat conversation that resulted in this question.

  • 5
    If you don't mind me asking, could you tell me what that semi-secret signal is... – user13878 Mar 10 '18 at 8:48
  • 14
    @Simpleton Three double chimes and several flashes of the red indicator near all the galleys. – gparyani Mar 10 '18 at 8:49
  • 4
    As an aviation enthusiast, you might consider posting this on our Aviation site where many aviation professionals will happily answer it. – DJClayworth Mar 10 '18 at 13:10
  • 1
    @DJClayworth Meh, this was a case of scope overlap. I opted to post here because the actual issue is strictly IPS. – gparyani Mar 10 '18 at 13:18
  • 8
    I'm very curious about this book. Why do you hand it over on each flight? Do they fill it in and hand it back? What's its contents? (I'm only asking out of curiosity and not because I intend to post an answer so feel free to ignore if you don't have time to answer). – RyanfaeScotland Mar 11 '18 at 1:33
59

Just because you are someone who will take that information calmly doesn't mean everyone is. To the flight attendants, you could well freak out about the possibility of something terribly wrong on the plane, they may not know you. In addition, if someone else overheard what was said, they could freak out instead. Sure, you may be curious as to what has happened, but while in the air, while whatever is happening may still be happening, is not a very good time to be asking "how doomed are we all" (which is essentially what we are asking).

Not only that, but odds are the flight crew are also extremely nervous about what could go wrong, and the last thing they want is to have to add onto the worry by having multiple passengers freaking out about what could possibly be happening.

Ultimately, as an aviation enthusiast, you should know that the odds are that everything will eventually be fine (and if it's not - you'll know). Even if it was a minor issue, they still couldn't tell you as then in the future you could start deducing "oh if they don't tell me it must be something really bad", which is just as bad as telling you the news itself.

Ultimately, the time you should be asking what happened is when you're safely on the ground (and preferably without anyone else around), when there's no reason for other people to freak out.

48

There's a good time to be quiet.

This is one of those. More or less, panicking people is a terrible idea. You're in a tin can hurtling through the sky on jet fuel and engineering.

Your pilot is a trained professional, as is your air crew. You got home safe.

If you need to know, they will probably tell you. Don't be this guy. Actually oddly enough, that Die Hard 2's plot is a textbook case of why they didn't announce it. If there's a minor issue with no immediate danger there's no point in announcing they are diverting.

You have a large number of people in a confined space. You have maybe a half dozen folk to ensure they're happy and safe.

"we're diverting because engine 1 failed"

Is about the worst thing a normal person wants to hear. Well other than "where's the wings?"

In short, they're trained professionals. You aren't, and if they're not telling you things, its following a fairly carefully planned out playbook.

30

Use your knowledge of airline operations to everyone's advantage - please sit in your seat quietly and wait for instructions, being a good role model to those around you.

This will actually help the crew tremendously.

Airlines divert for any number of reasons that aren't huge-mechanical-failure-we-all-might-die emergencies, so just because you are diverting, there's not always a need to worry.

In any case though, once the decision to divert is made, the captain and first officer are going to be extremely busy. They have at least 10 to 15 minutes of work to do. Typically, alerting the flight attendants is fairly high on this list of tasks, because they are fellow workers and have a job to prepare the cabin for landing, or ditching, or bracing, or whatever. The flight crew doesn't have time to explain to the cabin crew in great technical detail what the issue is. Typically they'll say something like "Hello. Hi, this is your notice, we are diverting, there is x issue, plan a normal landing, you have 10 minutes, any questions? No. Ok, see you on the ground." This where you might first notice something odd happening if you are in the cabin.

Next priority is determined by the captain. They may decide to immediately make a cabin announcement, or delay it for a long time. It's literally their job and training to prioritize things in a situation-dependant way; there isn't a hard and binding script. Perhaps assisting the first officer is more important, or planning an approach in bad weather unexpectedly, or calculating fuel reserves and range, notifying the company to have ground or maintenance crews available to meet the flight, etc. In fact, the flight crew may be so busy dealing with a true emergency they might in some very rare cases might not have time to announce to the cabin at all. In these cases they rely on the flight attendants to prepare and later evacuate the cabin, and this is actually the flight attendants' primary function — not to sell drinks and credit cards.

This is why you saw a change of course, the cabin get a message, ATC get a message (via flight tracker), and then you waited a long time (how long, 10 minutes? 15?) before an announcement was made. Not to be blunt about it, but even though you were curious, your actual need to know was a somewhat low priority.

Since you do have some aviation knowledge and interest, the crew would really prefer to count on you to appreciate that they are all extremely busy during such times and help them by being a calm example to the passengers around you and having some patience with the process; not walking around while the seatbelt sign is on and you know there's an unusual situation, pestering them in the galley with questions they probably don't know the answer to, and interrupting their job tasks during that time.

Some other answers talk about the need to delay the cabin announcement in order to keep calm in the cabin. This is partly true, but also the specific wording is a lot more critical than the timing. Saying "hello from the flight deck, one of the engines is losing oil and overheating and might seize up please hang on while we complete the emergency landing checklists" Is different than "ladies and gentlemen this is the captain, we have an indication of a possible mechanical problem, the situation is under control, but in the interest of safety we will be diverting to x airport, we'll be there in 10-12 minutes, please listen to your flight attendants' instructions".

TL;DR:

The flight crew is busy in any diversion situation whether or not it's an emergency, and performing an announcement in the cabin is often simply a lower priority task than nearly everything else. Flight attendants often don't know the whole story and can't explain to you in technical terms what the issue is, nor do they want to get into a debate with you about whether or not you agree with the decisions being made. The flight deck crew will of course get to it in all but the most unusual circumstances, but unless you can actually help control the aircraft or plan it's course from the back, they will make sure those tasks are properly accomplished first.

  • 3
    The seat belt sign was off when I went up to them, and they weren't preparing for anything, just literally doing nothing. If any one of those conditions didn't apply, I wouldn't have gone up and asked. I'm asking this question in the context where both of the above conditions apply. – gparyani Mar 10 '18 at 13:39
  • 2
    Good point, I may have over generalized the answer to apply to more than just this specific situation, but I don't think that would really matter from an IPS perspective, as it's generally rude to go into the galley in any case, it's much more polite to ring your call button. I'll remove the references to the seat belt sign if you prefer. – nexus_2006 Mar 10 '18 at 14:21
  • The flight attendant was having a casual chat with another passenger in the passenger cabin, and wasn't in the galley. Besides, I've actually heard the exact opposite advice. – gparyani Mar 10 '18 at 14:22
  • OP didn't disregard the "no seat belt" sign; it was off. He also didn't bother them in the galley, and even then, doing so is often appropriate depending on situation. Interpersonal skills, and all that. – Harper Sep 28 '18 at 2:15
22

As a potential fellow passenger, my answer is that you should handle this by:

Sitting down and shutting up

The crew's priority in that situation is handling the situation. I, and most likely every other passenger on the plane, want them doing exactly that. Not dealing with a back-seat pilot. Your hobby gives you "secret" information on what's going on? Great. It doesn't give you special rights and privileges. Quit distracting the crew in an emergency situation. If you want to feel less tense, there are things you can do like take a sedative or Buddhist meditation that don't interfere with the flight crew.

10

Anyone asking this question in this situation is likely to perceived as obnoxious, and / or a potential danger to the crew's ability to maintain calm in the cabin.

It's the sort of question you might be able to ask without doing damage if you were the suavest of the suave and able to ask it in a nonchalant, reassuring manner. You would have to make it clear that you are a stable, normal person motivated by minor curiosity and experiencing no fear. Even in that case, I would not expect an answer, because they have no reason to give you one.

From your description, it sounds like you presented as tense, and also showed a lack of respect for their authority. Showing them a flight tracker on your laptop was an aggressive action which probably made it seem that you are accusing them of withholding information (which they very well may be doing). They probably immediately thought "here's a guy who is likely to cause problems for us," and you gave them one more thing to worry about.

The bottom line is that having interpersonal skills means you do not ask this question in this situation, and you need to find another way to deal with your nervousness.

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