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Up in the air – a communication dilemma

The process of communicating within the confines of an aircraft, 36,000 feet above sea level, is a classic case study for demonstrating communication success and failure stories. Hence, I take into my classroom a plethora of examples from my vast experience of flying, curiosity to observe the exchanges between passengers and crew and from my candid conversations in the pantry with the crew on long-haul flights.

Crisis communication, conflict communication, communication about the airline company’s vision itself, non-verbal communication, negotiation, communication with diverse audiences, communication over food and drinks and the huge chasm it can create in the confines of an aircraft when people are hungry, cranky, claustrophobic, yet stick to their religious and cultural preferences as though their life depended on it – there are case studies galore in areas of organizational communication, corporate communication, managing people, and so on – with the aircraft itself serving as a macrocosm.

Reflecting national identity and pride

Let me begin with the national carrier – now a thing of the past – Air India. On a return flight from Milan to New Delhi, in 2015, we had the most harrowing experience – I say this because we ended up feeling embarrassed by a rude passenger and felt sorry for the crew. An irate passenger, travelling with his two male friends, demanded he be served whiskey, when politely informed that they were serving only beer, he burst forth in Hindi – “You are insulting India by not serving whiskey and serving a pittance of beer.” To which the male steward proudly retorted in Hindi – “You, my dear sir, are sitting in an international carrier and insulting your Motherland”. Our chests burst with pride, as we felt like giving the crew member a standing ovation. He went ahead and took a firm stand, informing the female flight attendants not to serve this ill-behaved passenger any alcohol. To counter this, our Indian passenger, ordered glasses full of beer through his co-passenger friend and got himself very drunk, causing us to squirm in our seats. When he alighted at Delhi, he raised his fist at the smiling steward warning him in Hindi “I got to know your caste, from your surname on your lapel, I will look after you once I alight.”

At the international airport in Incheon (Seoul), our Singapore Airways ground hostesses, would not stop bowing and making courtesies to her reporting manager at the gate, despite a huge line waiting for clearance into a connecting flight. She appeared worried and concerned about her hierarchical customaries, about pleasing her boss, despite donning the uniform of an international carrier. On the Singapore Airlines flight enroute Singapore to Incheon, there appeared a confrontation (predominantly non-verbal) between a young female air hostess and a senior male crew member. When the former strapped herself to her seat for landing, we could see her containing her tears with the utmost effort as she sat facing rows of passengers.  

In the US, the Southwest Airlines (they have an amazing nutsaboutsouthwestblog that shows an inside-out approach to communication) is breezy and chatty about their attitude on the ground and up in the air. The ground hostess while announcing the departure of my flight from Los Angeles to Portland, said this – “we are leaving in 15 minutes, if you want to hop on, do so, else lounge around in the city of angels and we will see you tomorrow.” On the flight as well, the air hostess and in-flight announcements by the captain were witty and wasted on the passengers – who didn’t mind this attitude and preferred to be left to their own devices.

Irrespective of how international airlines claim to be, the communication they adopt, reflects the culture of the nation the airline predominantly belongs. Hence when the pilot of a low-cost airline took off from an airport in Leicester with my suitcases to Dublin, and I confronted the ground hostess with this information, she gave me the stiff upper lip and a snarled eyebrow gaze back, and without mincing words, informed the pilot to offload my suitcase, but refused to let me get on that aircraft.

As airlines take off and get grounded, as investors launch companies and sell them away, as the aviation sector struggles to find the ideal hovering position, what remains unchanged up in the air, is a constant working and re-working of the communication process between humans, who are confined into a highly pressurized cabin, with no scope to jump off, and must therefore gather their wits about them to make the most of the journey, while communicating effectively.

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Up in the air – a communication dilemma

The process of communicating within the confines of an aircraft, 36,000 feet above sea level, is a classic case study for demonstrating communication success and failure stories. Hence, I take into my classroom a plethora of examples from my vast experience of flying, curiosity to observe the exchan…

Read more

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