Following his posts on the oil and gas industry, Lewis Lansford, co-author of English for Cabin Crew, part of the Express Series, returns to consider the importance of clear communication in moments of crisis, focussing in this case on cabin crew.
The trainer shakes her head. ‘I hope he never has to clear a plane’, she says to a colleague. ‘No one will know what he’s on about!’
To be fair to the trainee flight attendant, chances are that if the plane had just ground to a stop at the end of the runway with the landing gear still up after an emergency descent, the passengers would fully understand what he had in mind – Evacuate! Evacuate! – and would readily comply.
As passengers on the receiving end of in-flight service, we forget that passenger safety – rather than passenger comfort – is a flight attendant’s main job responsibility. Miscommunication during dinner service can be unpleasant, but is unlikely to result in serious injury.
‘The worst mix-up I ever had at meal time was with a British passenger’, says Japan Airlines flight attendant Mika Wade. ‘He asked me for an iced vodka. Well, that’s what I heard. After he spat out the drink violently, I understood that he’d actually asked for iced water.’ Oops.
Wade continues, ‘I also once told a first class passenger that his meal was pigeon. He became very angry and said “People don’t eat pigeons!” I checked, and of course the dinner was pheasant, not pigeon. I tried to apologize for my mistake, but he was angry for the rest of the flight. He was very rude to me about it.’ Oh, dear.
In both of those examples, customer service left something to be desired because of a language-based misunderstanding. The incidents were unfortunate, but ultimately harmless. But sometimes the wellbeing of the entire flight can depend on a flight attendant communicating clearly.
On 19 July, 1989, a United Airlines DC-10 experienced engine failure mid-flight. During the incident, a flight attendant told the pilot that there was damage to the ‘back wing’.
Pilots need to know as much as possible about any damage to the plane so they can respond with the appropriate actions. The co-pilot was sent into the cabin to check the damage to what he thought would be the back of the wing – the long, flat bit that sticks out of each side of the plane. He was at first confused because he could see that both of the wings were fully intact. He soon realized that by ‘back wing’, the flight attendant had actually meant the small wing-shaped bits that stick out at the tail of the plane. These are called the horizontal stabilizers, not the back wings. Pilots are so used to using the correct terminology that he simply didn’t understand the mistake at first.
Investigation into this and similar incidents has led researchers to the conclusion that all flight attendants should receive as much training as they reasonably can about technical aspects of airplanes – including the correct names of parts of the plane – beyond the knowledge they need to do their day-to-day job. In this case, there was time for the flight attendant’s communication error to be corrected, and fortunately the plane landed safety.
The lesson is an important one: if a cabin crew member hears a loud noise, becomes aware of a vibration, or has to deal with a fire in a galley rubbish bin, the message needs to be quickly and accurately passed to the flight deck because the wellbeing of the entire flight is at risk. Which makes an in-flight drinks mix-up seem not so bad.
Having the technical knowledge and appropriate level of English to clearly communicate its meaning, whether in a crisis or not, is an important skill. There are many situations where this may be important, not just for cabin crew.
Are there any situtations in which you or your students were unable to communicate your meaning properly?