Last week, a Southwest Airlines pilot reached record heights. It had nothing to do with his aircraft and everything to do with his language -- it broke the sound barrier. In case you missed it, the captain was ranting to his co-pilot about the poor quality of flight attendants Southwest Airlines hires. He got quite graphic about their age, weight and sexual orientation. He even took shots at the ugliness of the Houston base and its flight attendants. And he left no four-letter word unturned.
It probably would have never reached epic proportions, except for one little mistake. He inadvertently left a communication button in the "on" position. Instead of having a private conversation with his co-pilot, he linked himself live to the Houston Air Traffic Control Tower and every aircraft within their jurisdiction. And now, thanks to the Internet, the whole world knows how he feels about his co-workers.
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This isn't the first pilot to suffer from that foot-in-mouth disease. Several years ago, a Northwest Airlines pilot let the language fly on his cellphone while passengers boarded the aircraft. His conversation got so out of control, the airline canceled the flight and grounded the pilot.
And then there was an American Airlines pilot who got irate about new regulations for landing in Brazil that required him to be fingerprinted and photographed. When their immigration department took a shot of the pilot, he shot back with a certain one-finger salute. The pilot was arrested and fined more than $12,000.
But my favorite incident happened many years ago when I was a fairly new flight attendant. It was Christmas time, and I was working a flight that was stuck in a holding pattern over New York City. More than 30 airplanes were layered waiting to land. When I entered the cockpit, I found three pilots listening intently to their headsets while laughing hysterically. One of them handed me his headset so I could enjoy the show.
During landing approaches, the FAA insists on sterile communications. No pilot is allowed to say anything not specifically related to his flight.
But one pilot must have been upset about something and let out a profanity. The controller in the tower immediately requested the rogue pilot identify himself.
But instead of one aircraft responding, they all did. One by one. It made a long holding pattern go by very quickly.
Last year, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended routine monitoring and recording of cockpit conversations. Because of safety incidents, like the fatal crash near Buffalo, N.Y., where the voice recorder clearly showed the pilots were chatting instead of concentrating on their flying, the board feels recordings would enhance safety. Needless to say, the pilot unions are against it.
But one thing is certain, that Southwest Pilot will think twice before he opens his mouth in the cockpit again. And if I were him, I'd be a little wary of any food or drink the flight attendants served me. Because what he said won't fly with them.
• Gail Todd, a freelance writer, worked as a flight attendant for more than 30 years. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.