Religion in the Skies

As most of you are probably aware, an American Airlines captain faces disciplinary action after evangelizing to passengers on a flight between Los Angeles and New York on February 6th. The pilot of American’s flight 34, Roger Findiesen who had recently returned from a missionary trip to Central America, asked Christian fliers to identify themselves by raising their hands, then urged them to engage their non-Christian seatmates, who some witnesses claim he referred to as “crazy,” in a discussion about faith.

The overtones of an us-versus-them religious provocation by a crewmember feet need no elaboration, and reportedly several passengers were in the midst of making mobile phone farewells before things settled down. The mood was apparently so tense that when the captain asked non-Christians to identify themselves, only a few brave souls (sorry) nervously raised their hands.

This is easily the most curious — some would say disturbing — story to emerge from a cockpit since those two Southwest pilots went au naturel aboard a 737 last April. Southwest eventually terminated the offenders, while American says the antics of its proselytizing pilot are under investigation.

The airline flatly denies having implemented any Faith Based Initiatives to help entertain passengers, and let’s go ahead and stave off the jokes and cartoons before they happen, assuming it’s not too late: Flight attendants will not be coming around with collection baskets; seats will not be replaced by pews; a copy of the New Testament will not be found in your seatpocket; a tablet-style recreation of the Ten Commandments will not be posted on the first class bulkhead. Yes, an aft lavatory is about the correct size and shape of a confessional, but no, there is no need to address the captain as Father, Pastor, Reverend, or His Holiness (though you are free to speak at will of his all-knowingness, and for $4.00 he will turn your Diet Pepsi into a small bottle of wine.) The separation of church and sky is well assured, if not by the Constitution, then at least by good sense.

You would think.

Will the hapless Captain Findiesin be seeing a little fire and brimstone from his bosses? Assignment to some unpaid purgatory? Probably. He shattered decorum and made a lousy decision. “Whether you’re promoting Christianity, Islam, or Amway,” voices one Evangelical airline pilot, who asks that his name be withheld, “I don’t think it’s appropriate for an airline pilot to proselytize on the PA system.”

Imagine, for a second, if the captain of a Pakistan International or Royal Jordanian flight had done the same thing, swapping “Christian” for “Muslim,” somewhere over the Atlantic en route to New York. That plane, surrounded by a phalanx of scrambled fighter jets within minutes, would not have been allowed within 500 miles of US airspace. Granted that’s not entirely fair, since nobody has been threatening to skyjack airliners in the name of Jesus, and we have to figure most of flight 34’s occupants were Christian, at least nominally. But the parallel is an obvious and discomforting one.

Still, the accounts don’t fully vouch for the tone or inflection of his broadcast — important factors when it comes to deciding his penance. Was he speaking good-naturedly, ominously, apocalyptically? For now, and having shared cockpits with activist Christians in the past, I’ll give him benefit of the doubt and ask that you not equate this man’s attempts at transcontinental soul-saving with anything more than a little spiritual enthusiasm, albeit horribly ill-timed and, yes, a violation of the rules (we’ll get to that in a minute). For what it’s worth, reports claim that he eventually broadcast an apology, and appeared, well, repentant, as passengers disembarked.

Public address protocol in general seems to be an area of great intrigue among fliers, and perhaps understandably. That disconnected drawl coming over the speakers is often your only glimpse into the personality and character of the fellow to whom your life has been entrusted. Often that voice is all you get. On larger planes the cabin is so long and the cockpit so physically remote, that a majority of passengers, having surrendered their fates for eight, ten, or fifteen hours at a time, may never lay eyes the cockpit crew at all.

It varies carrier to carrier, but guidelines do exist outlining the acceptable tone and content of crewmember announcements. You’ll find stipulations against discussions of politics, religion, and personal opining in. Sayeth your General Operations Manual, chapter seven, verse 12: Jokes, off-color innuendo, or slurs of any kind are forbidden. Thou shalt maintain only the most generic and nonconfrontational rapport, lest the Chief Pilot summon and smite thee. (I strongly advocate the recitation of college football scores be added to the list of prohibitions, but that’s just me.)

In practice, of course, it’s all very informal, and pilots have more important things on their minds than the rulebook technicalities of PA announcements. It’s not the sort of thing one rehearses during simulator training. Engine fires and hydraulic failures are what a pilot worries about, not whether his microphone demeanor is meeting the small print of some obscure page in one of his manuals. At the end of the day it all comes down to common sense.

The rules also restrict — and not without good intentions — the use of potentially frightening language or alarming buzzwords. Taken from context, the invocation of something like “windshear” or “icing” is liable to have passengers weeping. One airline I worked for had a policy banning any announcement that began with the words, “Your attention please.”

“Your attention please. Southeastern Nebraska Tech has just kicked a last minute field goal to pull ahead of North Southwestern Methodist State, 31-28.”

Another no-no is launching into complicated, jargon-rich explanations. The vernacular of aviation contains enough acronyms and technical arcana to set anybody’s head spinning. “Yeah, um, ladies and gentlemen, looks like runway 31L at Kennedy just fell to less than an eighth. It’s under six hundred right now on all three RVR. They’re calling it Cat-three, and we’re only Cat-two up here, so, um, we’re gonna do a few turns over the VOR, then spin around and shoot the ILS to 22L. They’ve got a three-hundred and a half over there.”

Um.

To me, the important thing is to avoid overburdening people with information they can’t use. Take the weather. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s my hunch that nobody in row 36 cares that the wind in St. Louis is blowing from the southwest at fourteen knots, and that the dew point is 57 degrees. They want to know if it’s sunny, cloudy, rainy or snowy, and what the temperature is.

But in their attempts to translate confusing terms and clarify complex situations, crews are known to lapse into a hokey kind of pilot-ese that leaves people both uninformed and suspicious. There can be a fine line between what’s genuinely informative and what’s been dumbed down to the point where it sounds silly. I’m loath to bash my brethren, frontline defenders of whatever respect happens to remain in this business, but to a great extents we’re only as articulate as what we’ve got to worth with, which in this case is an almost paranoid dictum against scaring people or messing with their minds.

Airlines do not have policies of concealment or misinformation, tough as that may be for some to accept. But in their attempts to allay confusion (frequently) and fear (always), they recommend, if not mandate, only the simplest, easy-language explanations. This approach is totally out of whack with something as immense and intricate as our air system, and for as long as patronizing baby talk remains the procedure, distrust will continue to breed. Instances of cockpit-to-cabin awkwardness are, at least sometimes, symptoms of this greater dysfunction.

Making everything worse is the transfer of information between departments. When the weather turns foul or something goes wrong, the details are often passed from one team of workers to another, each with its own set of terminology and patois. The particulars of a given delay might be handed along from air traffic control to dispatchers to gate staff to crew before you’re given the bad news. Then it’s the pilot’s duty to turn that mangle into something that’s not overly technical or scary, yet also accurate and informative.

Better, maybe, just to talk about Jesus.


Addition: It’s only natural, maybe, that after last week’s column, in which I complained for five pages about pilot-to-passenger miscommunication, I find myself having to retract, recant, and reiterate (if not repent). I was not, as a number of reader’s seemed to think, advocating a dose of harsh discipline for poor Rodger Findiesen, the villainized captain of American Airlines flight 34 who evangelized to passengers prior to takeoff from Los Angeles on February 6. The more I learn of the event, the more I find the whole thing terribly overblown.

Of course, stories like this have a way of becoming cancerous. At this point, what Findiesen actually said, or more importantly how he said it, matters little, lost in a storm of self-perpetuating half-truths, rumors, and misquotations. Those who saw the early posting of my February 20th article know that I too had some of it wrong:

1. Findiesen had made his announcement at 35,000 feet, to panicked passengers trapped in a pressurized cabin far from safety and sanity.

Wrong. Flight 34 was still on the ground, languishing in a departure queue at LAX.

2. After a show of hands, Findiesen had called non-Christians “crazy.”

Or did he? According to at least one eyewitness, the reference was made good-naturedly, not divisively, and the captain may or may not have been encouraging onboard Christians to lecture or engage their non-Christian seatmates.

Evangelize. Proselytize. Those are the catchwords in this story, and stronger ones, possibly, that are due. Which isn’t to say he did the right thing; only that we should more closely examine the context before demanding Findiesen trade in his wings and hat for a pitchfork and tail.

Reacting to the furor, American has pulled the airman from duty until it figures out an appropriate penance, if any. Give the guy a few days off, if you ask me, and let it rest.


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.