Panicked Flight Crew

Q: As a nervous traveler I am constantly trying to read the facial expressions of the cabin crew. If there were an emergency on board, is it general policy to not inform passengers in order to avoid panic? I would like to know if death is imminent. Will I see it in the flight attendant’s eyes?

Many people expect nothing less than compulsive deception at the hands of the airlines, but no, there is no official concealment policy. The carriers themselves have bred much of this distrust, but while they could do better in the articulation department, they do not, as a rule, intentionally mislead passengers or withhold information during emergencies.

That said, a crew will not, generally, inform passengers of more commonplace problems or malfunctions with no real bearing on safety: You will not be told of expired light bulbs or minor glitches. “Ladies and gentlemen this is the captain speaking. Just to let you know, we’ve received a failure indication for the backup loop of the secondary smoke detection system in the aft cargo compartment.” Being blunt about every little problem invites trouble. In this example, passengers arrive home with stories like, “Oh my god, the plane was on fire.”

Which isn’t to say people aren’t bright enough to figure out what is or isn’t a dangerous situation, but often you’re dealing with jargon and terminology that lends itself to exaggeration and misunderstanding. Meanwhile, that glazed look in the flight attendant’s eyes is probably one of exhaustion and not fear.

There isn’t much in the imminent death realm that can go on behind the scenes, really. If it helps, go ahead and look back at past accidents, and you’ll see that things tend not to play out this way.


This Q&A 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.