Listening to Pilot Communication

Q: On some flights, the audio system has a channel through which passengers can hear communications between pilots and controllers. I always found this enthralling, but often it’s switched off. Why?

At United, its biggest purveyors, this is called “channel nine” in honor of its position in your armrest dial. It’s either a fascinating onboard distraction or tediously boring, depending on your level of infatuation with flight.

It is often unavailable, at the crew’s discretion, because of the unfriendly letters people send and the litigation they threaten when it’s perceived the pilots have made some “mistake.” Seriously, busybodies (private pilots? Would they really?) of one kind or another are notorious for this. Also, passengers not familiar cockpit vernacular may misinterpret a transmission and assume nonexistent or exaggerated troubles.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.