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The Separation of Church and Sky

Video aboard Qatar Airways.   Author’s photo.

June 26, 2017

ON SUNDAY, an AirAsia X flight from Perth to Kuala Lumpur suffered a malfunction in one of its Rolls-Royce engines, causing the plane to vibrate and shake seriously enough that the crew of the widebody Airbus A330 turned around and headed back to Perth. Reportedly, the flight’s captain twice instructed frightened passengers to pray.

AirAsia X is the long-haul arm of the hugely popular AirAsia, one of the world’s biggest budget carriers.

Now, before giving this guy a pitchfork and tail, let’s take a step back. Almost every story involving an airline incident tends to get distorted as it filters through the media, and there’s a lot here that’s missing. Do we know for absolutely sure that it was the captain who told his already-afraid occupants to pray, or was it a male member of the cabin crew? Passengers often confuse one for the other, when it’s just a disconnected voice coming over the cabin speakers. And what was the tone and inflection? Was it said ominously, or was it a comment made offhand, casually, colloquially, along the lines of a quick, “god bless you.” There’s a cultural context too, that may have played a role. AirAsia X’s employees are a diverse group from a wide range of nations and backgrounds. For some, a simple, salutatory religious invocation is nothing to get worked up about. And there are plenty of religious people out there who’d ask, So what? What’s wrong with asking for prayer? That doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless or the pilots hapless.

All of that aside, it probably wasn’t the brightest thing to have said. Flyers are always nervous on some level, and the last thing many of them want to hear, when a plane is vibrating and shaking violently, is to hear the pilots calling for help from the heavens.

At issue here too are the protocols of crew-to-passenger communications. There are company guidelines for acceptable tone and content. You’ll normally find stipulations against discussions of politics, religion, and anything derogatory. 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.)

The rules also advise against using 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.”)

In the end, though, it mostly comes down to common sense. For the most part, what to say, or to not say, is left at the crewmember’s discretion. And, let’s face it, some are better at this than others. Pilots, in particular, aren’t always eloquent or articulate on the mic. About the only defense I have for this — albeit, perhaps, a strong one — is that our expertise is in operating the aircraft, not in making chit-chat. 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.



 

This isn’t the first time the separation of church and sky has been an issue. In 2005, an American Airlines captain faced disciplinary action after evangelizing to passengers on a flight between Los Angeles and New York. The captain, 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 in a discussion about faith. The overtones of an us-versus-them religious provocation by a pilot need no elaboration, and reportedly several passengers were in the midst of making mobile phone farewells to loved ones 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.

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 U.S. airspace.

But it was probably a bad idea to read too much into the man’s attempts at transcontinental soul-saving. And for what it’s worth, he eventually broadcast an apology, and appeared, well, repentant, as passengers disembarked. The AirAsia captain, meanwhile, is likely sitting at home and wondering what all the fuss is about.

At Alaska Airlines, for many years, a bit of inflight Bible study was an in-house tradition. High over the clouds, passengers at Alaska would come across the following heavenly chatter:

“I will be glad and rejoice in you;
I will sing praise to your name
O most high.”
– Psalm 9:2

No, that’s not your captain speaking, it’s your breakfast tray, which included an inspirational notecard with a snippet from the Old Testament — a company custom since dating to the 1970s.

“I will praise God’s name in song, and glorify Him with thanksgiving.”

Hey, and for an upgrade I’ll baptize myself in the lav. For better or worse, I figure there’s no shortage of Americans willing to hear out a prayer or two if it means some tastier food and a wider seat.

United Airlines, for its part, used to stock copies of Gideon’s Bible in its magazine racks. Carriers in some parts of the world include prayer sections onboard their aircraft, and the in-seat video screens on those from predominantly Muslim countries will show a qibla compass, giving real-time distance and direction to Mecca.

Malaysia Airlines prayer card.   Author’s collection.

 

Note: Several readers have asked why the AirAsia pilots didn’t shut down the malfunctioning engine that was causing the vibration. In fact they probably did. Assuming assuming they followed some pretty basic steps, the engine would’ve been shut down in pretty quick order. If the shaking continued, that’s probably because the engine kept “windmilling,” which is to say its rotating parts, particularly the large fan in the front, however now imbalanced due to the loss of one of more blades (or whatever exactly was wrong with it), continued to spin because of the force of oncoming air. If it’s damaged enough, an engine will simply seize and refuse to turn, but it’s possible this malfunction wasn’t severe enough for that to happen. Air resistance will keep it spinning, and there’s really no way to stop this.

 

Portions of this post ran previously in the magazine Salon.

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