How One Pilot Calmed His Passengers With Just a Few Words

These 4 communication skills worked like magic to soothe worried minds.

Posted Sep 14, 2016

"Sully," wikipedia, CC
Source: "Sully," wikipedia, CC

I’m looking forward to the movie, “Sully,” especially after a recent experience on the last leg of a flight home from Europe.  

Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger was a heroic pilot whose skill and nerve saved 155 lives in the famous "Miracle on the Hudson." By contrast, my life and the lives of my fellow passengers were not in danger at any time; we were only in an upsetting situation. This is the story of how an unknown pilot made a difficult situation much easier for me and a planeload of other people, just by using simple communication skills. (Anyone can learn these skills with ease.  They are listed further down in the blog.) 

After visiting family in Europe, my partner and I were returning home. We had endured a long 15-hour travel day and were exhausted and irritable. It didn’t help that after arriving in Chicago, we had to drag our baggage through the Arrivals section of O’Hare Airport to recheck it (standard operating procedure); walk the length of a football field with our carry-ons, following poor signage to an airport tram; and take the tram to a different concourse, where we wolfed down a barely edible dinner of fast food at 10 p.m.  Finally we boarded, looking forward to being home in St. Louis within the hour. 

Boeing 767 Cockpit, by KDTW Flyer, CC
Source: Boeing 767 Cockpit, by KDTW Flyer, CC

Our plane taxied out to the runway and was waiting to be cleared for take-off—or so I thought. After a lengthy wait in the darkness, the captain informed us that we were returning to our gate so that a malfunctioning display part could be fixed.  A collective sigh rose up from the passengers, as we slowly returned to our starting point. 

Time passed. The part was fixed.  Again we taxied to the runway.  Again the captain’s voice advised us that the part still was not working.  This time we would return to our gate so that mechanics could replace the part, he said.

At this point I heard passengers grumbling and making cynical remarks. Then, while back at our gate, an extraordinary thing happened:

The captain stepped out of the cockpit and spoke to us directly from the front of the plane without benefit of a microphone or a scratchy-sounding PA system. Although I could not see him clearly in the dark, he stood tall and his bearing was authoritative. I had never seen a pilot do this before, and my attention was riveted. The pilot then said something like this:

“I’m really sorry that we’ve been having trouble with this part.  I know this is a huge inconvenience to you, especially to those on the flight who have been traveling for almost 20 hours. It may not be much comfort, but some of us in this business have a saying: It’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than to be in the air wishing you were on the ground. We expect to replace the malfunctioning display shortly and get you home soon. Again, we’re sorry for the inconvenience.”

This little talk calmed my nerves and probably those of many other people, judging by the quiet that descended over the plane. Later the co-pilot emerged to reiterate the main points. Finally we were on our way and flew home without further incident.

Afterwards I thought about why the captain’s talk had been so effective.  I realized he had used four communication skills:

1. Good body language, including eye contact

Instead of distancing himself from the situation by staying in the cockpit or letting the flight attendant handle it, the pilot emerged from the cockpit and explained the situation himself. Although it was dark, he looked straight at us passengers and made as much eye contact as he could.

2. A Real Apology

The pilot offered a real apology, not just the grudging sorry/not sorry patter of a customer service representative.

3. Empathy

In addition to an explanation of the problem, the pilot showed empathy for the passengers, acknowledging the inconvenience to us and the exhaustion we were experiencing.

4. Reframing

"Reframing" is learning to look at a negative situation in a more adaptive or positive way. By reframing our situation, the pilot helped us all regain perspective. I loved his memorable mantra: “It’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than in the air wishing you were on the ground.”, CC0
Source:, CC0

This incident was no “Miracle on the Hudson.” Ours was not a situation that becomes a blockbuster movie. Yet our pilot did a great job of soothing some troubled minds, including my own.  It doesn’t cost much to use these simple communication skills, and they lead to a kind of goodwill that is priceless.

© Meg Selig, 2016

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