It was a pleasant, relaxed flight, the aircraft sailing along at cruise altitude, when the oxygen masks suddenly dropped from the overhead. The flight attendant immediately followed procedures as trained: grabbing the closest mask, buckling up, and instructing the passengers to follow suit. Prepared for the aircraft to descend rapidly – the standard procedure during a decompression – everyone in the cabin waited.
When, after a few minutes, the aircraft continued to fly straight and level, the flight attendant cautiously opted to go to the cockpit to check on the pilots. Fortunately, they were fine, but unaware that the masks had been deployed accidently.
But what if there had been no flight attendant on board?
How would you communicate with the cockpit in the event of anything out of the ordinary in the cabin: masks dropping mid-flight, snow on the wings, smoke, an unusually foul odor (See “Every Breath You Take,” BAA Nov/Dec 2015), or a fellow passenger losing consciousness?
Obviously, cockpits do not have rearview mirrors to see what is taking place in the aircraft cabin. And depending on the size of the aircraft, the cockpit crew may have a significant blind spot and be unable to see the aircraft wings. The art of two-way communication between cabin and cockpit is critical on an aircraft.
There is no one right way to communicate in the cabin – just make sure you have a plan that both the crew and passengers clearly understand before departure. The pilot normally will provide brief updates on weather, route, and estimated arrival time, as well as inflight safety instructions.
Knowing when to say something – should you or a passenger notice something unusual or simply feel uneasy – can be a challenge. The FAA regulation known as “sterile cockpit” governs Part 135 operators (charter) and is standard practice, though not required, for Part 91 operators (owner flying). It reads: “Crewmembers shall not participate in activities or conversation during critical phases of flight (taxi, takeoff, landing, when climbing or descending within 1,000 feet of a level off altitude, and flight below 10,000 feet AGL [Above Ground Level], except for cruise flight) that are other than those required for the safe conduct of the flight.”
However, if there is any emergency situation, it is important to break this sterile cockpit requirement to address the concern, no matter the timing. Large cabin aircraft sometimes have a flight attendant aboard, and he or she will know when that is appropriate. But midsize and light jets rarely do, and that responsibility will fall to you.
What tools do you have to communicate quickly with the cockpit? Do you run to the front of the aircraft? Use the handset to dial up the cockpit? Push the “call” button or shout from your seat?
Those onboard often are the eyes and ears of the aircraft as cockpit crews are listening to their headsets and focused on what lies ahead. Larger aircraft may have a door between cockpit and cabin, which may be closed. On any aircraft, the distance between the passengers and cockpit could be so great that even yelling is not an effective option.
Before your next flight, initiate a conversation with your cockpit crew and flight attendant about the communication style that best suits them – and your passengers. If there is no flight attendant, make sure the flight crew knows who the “lead passenger” will be, responsible for alerting them of any cabin safety issues that arise in flight.
And if you do see something amiss, always say something right away. Your safe and timely arrival may depend on it. BAA
Amy Nelson, a Cabin Manager Specialist, was the Manager of Cabin Services at TAG Aviation USA and most recently Flight Attendant Supervisor at ConocoPhillips Alaska. She holds a master’s degree from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University.