And then we wonder why Channel 9 isn’t on….

The Consumerist has an interesting story about a United Airlines passenger that overhead a flight attendant refer to the passengers in coach as “idiots,” in the context of “starting on drinks for the idiots in coach.” A passenger overheard this on Channel 9, through which passengers can listen to air traffic control communications. In this case one of the knobs on the audio panel was set to include communications among the crew on Channel 9, since these communications aren’t typically transmitted over Channel 9.

Anyway, a passenger mentioned overhearing the “idiot” comment to the flight attendant and didn’t receive an apology, and the next thing we know The Consumerist is all over this.

First let me say that it’s rude and unacceptable to refer to your customers as idiots. That being said, this is really being blown out of proportion. I think we can all say that we’ve referred to customers as idiots at our workplaces at one point or another behind their backs. I’ve heard much worse at places I’ve worked at. Maybe some passengers were rude and were causing problems, or maybe the flight attendant was just in a pissy mood. The fact is, we all generalize and let bad words slip once in a while. I’ve also heard flight attendants use much worse words for pilots, although that’s a different story. 😉

The unfortunate part of this story is the end result. The passenger heard this through Channel 9, which is at the discretion of the captain. Many United captains (I’d say north of 50% nowadays) choose to leave Channel 9 off for a variety of reasons. In this case I think it’s no mystery what this particular captain will do on future flights. This situation could have been avoided had Channel 9 not been on, and that’s the sad part.

The only thing I’ll ever say to a captain regarding Channel 9 is “thanks for turning it on,” and there’s good reason for that. Thanks to this passenger and “Nicholas” for ruining it for all of us. 🙁

Filed Under: Media, Unions
  1. While I listen on occasion to Ch.9, I am not nearly as obsessed with it as the rest of the FT UA gang. It’s certainly not a deciding reason for me to fly UA. I assume the person who reported this incident is feeling similarly (because clearly all “fanatics” would rather bite their tongue than risk having it turned off). Blaming him for complaining about a terrible comment is wrong and unfair. He’s not required to swallowing an insult so you can listen to Ch.9. If UA’s pilots and other crew members can’t draw the right conclusions from this story (which, OBVIOUSLY, is to treat customers as customers, not as idots), then I am sorry to say they have the wrong job.

    And no, I have never called my company’s customers idiots, whether in private or in public. I may have *thought* that certain individuals are idiots, but that’s different from a blanket statement.

  2. Lucky, I have to respectfully disagree with you on this one. I’m going to have a blog post on my response in a bit (making dinner now!)

  3. Allow me to clarify something: No pilot should change their opinions of Channel 9 because of this (as you know I’m hugely pro-customer), but they will. Whether we like it or not, we have to get used to the fact that many UA pilots will use any reason they can as justification for working against management. This is unfortunately another thing they can use against passengers. That’s exactly the reason Channel 9 has gone from being on greater than 90% of the time on my flights in 2003, to less than 50% of my flights this year.

    Is it right? Of course not. Is it going to be used as further justification? Absolutely.

  4. Well, as we were discussing on FT, I don’t think the actual levels of who keeps or extinguishes Channel 9 will change very much. I think pilots will only be hyper vigilant in ensuring that interphone communication of the airplane is not patched in with Channel 9, and those that turn it on, will keep it on, because, obviously they are the ones willing to assume the risk of some passenger who has no idea of actual aviation procedures sparking some FAA investigation because of something they heard.

  5. Gray, I don’t think Channel 9 went from a near guarantee to a 50/50 shot because professional pilots with tens of thousands of flight hours are concerned about being recorded on YouTube. They simply used that as an excuse, as it was convenient. The reason they started turning of Channel 9 was because it’s one of the few things they have discretion over that can annoy management.

    As more and more employees become disgruntled due to United’s management team, more are choosing to flip the switch into the “off” position. When they read stories like these (and I can assure you there’s a massive discussion on the subject in the UAL ALPA board), more pilots just won’t even bother anymore.

    So sad. 🙁

  6. Quote:

    “They simply used that as an excuse, as it was convenient. The reason they started turning of Channel 9 was because it’s one of the few things they have discretion over that can annoy management.”

    Well, that’s a very intriguing argument, and something that I will certainly defer to you because of your vast expertise over mine in that area. I think it’s an excellent and thought-provoking point. Still, I have to wonder though, why would pilots drop their Channel 9 levels to annoy management, because of a reported incident that was a result of their radio blunder? I’m curious to know.

  7. Lucky, why do you think pilots need an excuse to turn off Ch. 9? It’s on at their discretion, and no reason or justification (offered to customers or management) if a pilot decides to turn it off.

  8. Gray, as a bit of background on my argument, here’s a post I made a while back regarding the reasons for pilots not turning in Channel 9 (in my opinion:

    I think pilots will have a problem with this because mistakes happen to the best of them. I even remember someone posting on FlyerTalk that they flew with our favorite captain (you know who I mean), and he forgot to turn on Channel 9. Mistakes happen. Similarly in this case, the switch which would allow this to happen is on the jumpseat (as far as I know), so it could very well be that the last pilot jumpseating had flipped that switch and forgot to turn it back. It may not have been the fault of the crew flying, although they could always check to be certain. Still, it seems to me like an honest mistake.

    Let’s just assume for a moment that the captain had good intentions and had turned on Channel 9. What’s the end result? There’s a story in The Consumerist about how much United sucks? This could have all been avoided had the captain simply chosen not to flip the switch, unfortunately.

    Oliver, they don’t need an excuse, but they like to have one. When I ask a pilot whether or not s/he’ll be turning on Channel 9 and they respond in the negative, they typically say it’s “because some people are reporting what they hear to the FAA” or “because some people are taping Channel 9 and putting it on YouTube,” and not “because ten years ago I made $10,000 more as a 737 first officer” (although sometimes they go with that as well).

  9. > This could have all been avoided had the captain simply chosen not to flip the switch, unfortunately.

    As someone pointed out on FT, the comment could also have been overheard by someone sitting near the FAs or walking by the galley.

    > Oliver, they don’t need an excuse, but they like to have one.

    And you think they are now going to tell you “because our FAs need to be able to call you guys idiots without you knowing” ? 😉

    I am curious — if Ch.9 is so vital to you, how come you always fly non-UA on your luxe trips to foreign shores? Do you take a dose of with you on your iPod? 😉

  10. One more thought: if you feel that pilots are turning off Ch. 9 to harm their company (because that’s what you essentially implying, right?), then broadcasting more FA insults over Ch.9 would just help their cause, wouldn’t it?

  11. Oliver, I never said Channel 9 is “vital” to me. I enjoy Channel 9 and I always thank pilots for turning it on (even when I don’t actually listen), but it doesn’t make or break a flight for me.

  12. OK, OK, vital clearly wasn’t the right word, and I was just teasing you anyway. That said, I am amazed how much digital ink is spilled over Ch.9 (just look at the length of your earlier post and the many discussions on FT). And how many “idiots” don’t mind being called idiots as long as they get to keep Ch.9. I guess it just confirmed what they knew all along anyway? 😉

    Anyway, enough digital ink spilled by me.

  13. I had this happen to me on a redeye to Orlando once. I got a chuckle out of the conversation, but I did let the captain know at the end of the trip about it. He asked if I thought the conversation was “alarming”. I just said it was amusing to know when the folks up front needed a bathroom break. We all got a nice laugh out of it.

    Also, being the pilot geek that I am ;-), this website may give you an idea of where the Channel 9 controls are.

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