Zach Ware

Standby for all-call

I notice patterns and cadences. It’s something I’ve always had a thing for.

Travel is full of patterns. The only thing keeping the ballet of chaos that is the American air travel system alive is systems. Systems that involve moving a lot of people in an orderly fashion require routines.

Americans can’t be expected to follow signs or to figure things out on our own so we resort to announcements, often loud ones. Comparatively European and (most) Asian airports are places of calm, almost zen-like. The strategy of inserting the chaos of yelling over any existing chaos is a purely American creation.

At one point in my life, I was in an airport at least twice a week. Today it’s a few times a month. I’ve grown accustomed to the patterns and announcements. I know the words. I don’t need to listen to them, I just know them. Like the familiar sounds of a home, they remind me where I am and subconsciously calm me. The routines of travel have the opposite effect on me than they do on the majority of travelers.

There’s the repeat announcements a Chicago O’Hare, many from a male voice I have painted a picture of in my head. “The TSA has limited the items that may be carried through the security checkpoint. Passengers should check with their air carrier for further information.”

Years ago when the TSA raised the threat level a notch to orange, one of his announcements changed and his accentuation of the word ORANGE made me chuckle. I could hear it 100 times in a day and still giggle.

I notice when they change as I have in the past few months flying American Airlines, the airline I most often fly and with whom I was once a super top tier frequent flyer.

After landing as your plane approached the gate, a voice from the flight deck would say “Ladies and gentlemen please remain seated until the captain turns off the fasten seat belt sign. Flight attendants please prepare for arrival and cross check.”

It seemed benign but the announcement was purposeful. It was an indication to the flight attendants that we were, in fact, pulling up to the gate with no further delays. That announcement wasn’t for the passengers, it was an official indication that exit doors could be disarmed and we were no longer on an active taxiway. We were safe.

It was always delivered in a subtle, pleasant way. The majority of the statement seemed to be about passenger safety. It reminded us to be careful.

Similarly, the chime you hear while taxing is the signal from the flight deck that the tower cleared us for takeoff. The sign that we’re not stopping again. Sometimes you hear it long before the plane approaches the runway.

These are the patterns.

Since the US Airways/American merger, some things have changed. The combined airline clearly chose to keep the practices that work the best between the two and jettisoned the rest.

Now, as the plane approaches the gate, nothing is said. Once the plane stops, one of the flight attendants gets on the intercom and says “Flight attendants prepare for arrival, disarm doors and standby for all call.”

It’s an employee-focused message. It’s abrupt. It serves the purpose. It gets the job done.

It sums up the differences between the culture of the two airlines. US Airways was a classic legacy carrier. It filed for bankruptcy twice in two years. It changed its ticker symbol to LCC to reflect its desire to be a low-cost carrier. It put ads on tray tables. Every flight, even super short ones, included a harassing announcement from flight attendants about its credit card offer.

American didn’t file for bankruptcy until 2011 and to most analysts it was a surprise. American was the most predictable carrier. For frequent flyers it was a dream, not because of extreme perks but because if you were a top tier flyer, the people thanked you. They didn’t follow procedure they just smiled. The company had a culture of trying to show gratitude. Sure, sometimes they failed. But my point is about the culture.

American and US Airways merged in 2013. US Airways’ management took the helm. It’s the world’s largest airline.

The change in the gate approach announcement is small. But for all the changes it is the one that speaks to me the most about the new company’s philosophy. It’s not good or bad. It just is.

And on Thursday, I’ll be unbuckling my seat belt on a couple of American Airlines flights while the flight attendants standby for all-call.

First published on February 23, 2016