- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 7, 2002

"Brshvgjktkfs, weather dklgkbgkb left side eklgfkbkvbkl gfkhkrkwl seat belt dlvll jljlhjl glug-glug thank you bndkgktio."
The above, in case you haven't figured it out, is the voice from the cockpit a pilot or first officer telling passengers on a commercial flight something they can barely hear and rarely understand. I call it Planespeak. The reason passengers can't understand? Several:
The plane's public address system isn't working or else there is distortion in the output.
Even if the public address system is working, the cockpit voice talks in an undertone, the impressive mumble of a professional so that you can't understand anything he's saying. The reason for the calm inaudible bumble from the cockpit is to assure you that everything is go-go.
The captain talks so rapidly in that clipped fashion that sounds authoritative so nobody understands what he said.
The cockpit voice speaks with a heavy foreign accent so he can't really be understood.
The cockpit voice cuts off in the middle of a sentence and never returns to complete it.
Words are swallowed so you hear the last two words of "Thank you for flying the friendly skies."
The "friendly skies" aren't as friendly as they used to be. There is understandably tremendous concern about air safety, about hijacking, about passengers with funny shoes, about suicide bombers, about what President Bush called "the axis of evil." Great and costly efforts are being made to ensure flight safety. But there is one airline failure that is ignored and that is ensuring that communication from the cockpit to passengers is understandable. I don't mind that quite often you can't understandthe speaker at the check-in desk. After all, we're stillonthe ground and we'll find out in time what we're supposed to know.
I exclude no airlinefrom this failure of communication. This is a deficiency that federal aviation authorities ignore because it seems so trivial. What's positively irritating is that radio communication between cockpit and en route traffic control, which is constant and to which passengers are sometimes allowed to listen, is always understandable but the moment one of the crew gets on the horn to talk to the passengers, it's "Brshvgjktkfs, weather dklgkbgkb left side eklgfkbkvbkl gfkhkrkwl seat belt dlvll jljlhjl glug-glug thank you bndkgktio."
I've sat next to foreign passengers, such as a German couple, whose knowledge of English was limited. I was able to converse with them, but when the cockpit voice came on they looked blank. And I couldn't help them either because I couldn't understand what was being said. If something important, which would require some passenger action, were being reported by the cockpit there would be no way for the average traveler to know what had been reported.
A recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll showed that the percentage of people who are afraid to fly is high 43 percent in November. Fewer Americans are boarding planes today than before September 11. In December 2000, there were 41.8 million passenger boardings. In December 2001, there were 35.7 boardings, a drop of almost 15 percent. What airlines are also overlooking is that in an aging population, some travelers may be suffering from some hearing loss and thus unable to hear everything being blasted at them by the flight deck at full speed.
It would certainly help restore confidence among passengers if maintenance personnel were ordered to check on the communication equipment and the pilots were asked to speak slowly, distinctly and loudly and to hell with the spurious Walter Mitty whispered "we're-going-through."

Arnold Beichman, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, is a columnist for The Washington Times.


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