Pilots are potentially the most valuable for soothing anxieties and explaining the nuances of abnormal situations

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Of all front-line employees, pilots are potentially the most valuable for soothing anxieties and explaining the nuances of abnormal situations. Unfortunately, thanks to fears over liability, much of this potential is squandered. Pilots are wary of saying the wrong thing, of being blamed, punished, or otherwise called to the carpet should something be misconstrued or taken from context. It’s true that people write letters and threaten lawsuits over the damnedest things, but really this is an airline culture and training problem. Too often the emphasis is on how not to communicate—which phrases never to say, which terms and scary-sounding buzzwords to avoid. The result is a tendency to say as little as possible—a default policy of evasive simplification.

This is obviously counterproductive, and never more so than those times when minor abnormalities are made to sound harrowing: One time I was riding in economy class on a flight into Boston. Just before landing, the pilots aborted the landing and went around. There was no reason to believe anything remotely serious had occurred, but the sense of fright emanating from those around me was palpable. Eventually, one of the pilots gave an explanation. “Ah, well, sorry about that,” he began. “Another plane cut in front of us on the runway, so we needed to break off the landing. We’re circling back and will be landing in a few minutes.”

Nothing else was offered. I sat there in silent anguish. “Please, say more,” I thought. “You got to say additional.” however he didn’t, and instead of quell the passengers’ anxieties, he had created them worse. “A plane cut in front of us?” came a raised voice from a few rows down, followed by nervous laughter. A college kid sitting diagonally from me was visibly shaken. Later that evening, no doubt, he’d be regaling friends with the harrowing tale of his “near miss.” Which it was not. The go-around (see aborted landings) was the result of a simple spacing issue—not a near miss at all, but a maneuver performed well in advance of one; indeed, to avoid a near miss.

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