An AirAsia plane on Sunday experienced an in-flight problem with an engine and made the decision to return to Perth, Australia, from where it had departed an hour and a half earlier. The description of events had all the trademarks of an internal failure of one of the engine’s turbine sections. The out-of-balance condition for an engine so massive is going to be noticeable—certainly to the average passenger—and cause for alarm. According to news reports, the plane was rattling heavily for a long period of time.
Pilots such as myself practice such abnormal events in a simulator during initial training and each and every year thereafter. And while such incidents are not routine, neither do they carry the dire sense of urgency that a non-pilot might assume. We practice such scenarios in the highly unlikely event that we experience such an occurrence (which has never happened to me in my over 20,000 hours of piloting), we will have conditioned ourselves so as to minimize our “startle” response and react to the problem in a calm and direct manner.
But apparently the flight situation rattled the pilot enough that he asked the passengers twice to pray. If that weren’t enough cause for alarm, there was at least one follow up message from the cockpit, “Our survival depends on your cooperating. Hopefully everything will turn out for the best.”
I do not know exactly why the pilot thought it necessary to ask for divine assistance. But after 30 years of fielding questions and concerns from thousands of people who have a fear of flying, I assume that saying this would only confirm to any scared passengers that they were in serious trouble.
Pilots have a responsibility that extends far beyond passenger safety. They can greatly influence passengers’ emotional states by reassuring them through regular announcements. Many of the people who take my classes report that they like hearing from their pilots. In fact, they are uncomfortable when the pilots do not say anything, even when things are going well.
The airline’s mistakes continued after the flight landed. One passenger felt that AirAsia provided no medical support or information about replacement flights after they had gotten off of the plane. The passengers would have been better served if following such a potentially traumatic incident, the airline provided someone to talk to immediately who was knowledgeable about traumatic stress and could reassure them that while the flight was upsetting, at no time were they in real danger.
Airlines and pilots need to prioritize not only keeping their passengers safe, but also making them feel safe. Hopefully AirAsia (and other carriers) will learn from this incident and handle potentially traumatic situations better going forward.
Ron Nielsen is a retired airline captain and founder of FearlessFlight.com.