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This is related to, but not the same as, another question I asked on Interpersonal Skills.

I was on a flight last year, on a route I fly on a fairly frequent basis. Shortly after takeoff, I heard the three double chime signal, which is commonly used by airlines to indicate to the crew of a potential problem. The crew quickly marched up to the front of the passenger cabin and was briefed by the pilots. I also noticed that the plane was going off course. Some time later, I used the onboard Wi-Fi service to query an online flight tracker about the flight I was on, and it said we were diverting back to our origin airport.

Throughout the whole incident, all the crew kept quiet about the whole thing, and didn't let passengers know about the diversion until just a few minutes before landing back at the origin airport.

Before the announcement, while the seat belt sign was turned off and while the crew weren't making any emergency preparations of any sort (just casually chatting with other passengers), I got up and asked the crew what was going on, and they said "nothing". I then showed them the tracker page which indicated the diversion, and they just asked me to return to my seat.

What's the general protocol for cabin crew, when asked by passengers who notice potential issues like this and get curious? Is it common for them to simply say that "nothing" is going on until the flight deck makes an announcement? What if a passenger really insists on knowing what's going on? (As an aviation enthusiast, I feel more comfortable if told about the issue; not knowing about it can make me feel tensed.)

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    $\begingroup$ Keeping hundreds people from getting nervous inside a confined space is the best thing the crew can do and they know it. If you, a passenger, is also an experienced airliner pilot there's not much you can do to help beyond helping the crew to keep the crowd cool $\endgroup$ – jean Sep 26 '18 at 17:40
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    $\begingroup$ The way I see it, there is no reason for the flight crew to speculate as to what might be wrong. The captain or flight attendants will typically announce any information that is necessary for the passengers to know. $\endgroup$ – selectstriker2 Sep 26 '18 at 17:40
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    $\begingroup$ By the way did you really find out what happen in the end? $\endgroup$ – vasin1987 Sep 26 '18 at 17:49
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    $\begingroup$ @vasin1987 There was smoke detected in a lavatory, which was traced to a malfunctioning engine. The engine was repaired and tested, and the flight was ready to go. $\endgroup$ – gparyani Sep 26 '18 at 17:50
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    $\begingroup$ Along the lines of @jean's comment, there's a Men in Black quote which continues to be infuriatingly useful to me: "A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it." $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Sep 26 '18 at 23:13
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What if a passenger really insists on knowing what's going on?

As always, it depends.

Let's briefly summarize the possibilities here:

  1. Passenger spotted an issue which the crew is unaware of.
  2. Passenger spotted an issue which the crew is aware of.
  3. Passenger is behaving in a rude manner.

And let's go over the actions the flight crew can possibly take, without matching the above conditions:

  1. Inform the pilots immediately.
  2. Inform other cabin crew members.
  3. Explain to the passenger what the issue is.
  4. Warn the passenger to stop the behavior.
  5. Ignore the issue altogether.

Now let's go over the scenario. The flight deck called for a briefing, so it is obvious that the pilots know what is going on. Every crew member was briefed as well. So that means scenario #2 on our first list, and we've ruled out #1 and #2 on the second list. They knew the plane is diverting, and they saw what they expected.

Action #3 is unlikely to end up well. When only individual passengers are informed about an abnormal situation, rumors would spread in the cabin, causing panic. It is even worse when the passenger thinks he is an "expert" when in reality he is spreading disinformation. Furthermore the flight attendants may not have complete information, they are only briefed by the pilots about the severity of the situation and what to do / not to do.

If the passenger really insists, perhaps a brief "The pilot is aware of the situation, please take your seat" would be the simplest reply. Beyond that, action #4 may be necessary. Cabin crew are trained for this, and there are procedures about how to deal with a passenger whose behavior is judged as unacceptable in flight.

So that leaves, #5. The pilots may make a PA explaining they have a technical issue and they are turning around. Or they may not, depending on the workload in the cockpit, severity of the situation etc. The senior flight attendant may, at their discretion, make an announcement informing the passengers they are going to divert. Or they may not.

What the pilots and cabin crew did, was kept the passengers calm, worked the checklists, and landed the airplane without incident. That's their job.

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    $\begingroup$ This should be asked as a separate question, but if the flight crew are aware of an emergency that is potentially fatal, do they have any obligation to inform passengers? This might be more appropriate for an ethics forum, the right to know of one's impending death, etc. $\endgroup$ – user1997744 Sep 28 '18 at 10:36
  • $\begingroup$ @user1997744 Cabin crew are also trained to handle emergencies. Their top priority is, obviously, ensure everyone has the best chance of survival. Details are too lengthy to discuss here, but yes, you can ask a separate question and it'd be on-topic for this site as far as aviation procedure goes. $\endgroup$ – kevin Sep 28 '18 at 11:19
  • $\begingroup$ @user1997744 haha, every flight is 'potentially fatal'. However, if the emergency was potential fatal, you wouldn't need the cabin crew to tell you. You'd probably notice an all-engine out, a fire or a stall without being told what it was. $\endgroup$ – Cloud Sep 28 '18 at 15:09
  • $\begingroup$ Is there any evidence that passengers ever 'panic' when they learn there's a problem (other than obvious ones like a full blown fire in the cabin)? $\endgroup$ – Hugh Sep 29 '18 at 12:46
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    $\begingroup$ Above the second list of choices, did you really mean flight crew, or did you mean cabin crew? "Flight crew" goes poorly with "inform the pilots". $\endgroup$ – a CVn Oct 20 '18 at 18:00
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What's the general protocol for cabin crew, when asked by passengers who notice potential issues like this and get curious?

The flight crew and pilots are under no obligation to inform the passengers about non critical issues and broadly speaking it's often better to provide only needed information so as not cause some kind of panic. In the vast majority of situations on an aircraft there is nothing the passenger can do other than evacuate when told to do so.

Turning an aircraft around and heading back to the point of origin is not necessarily an emergency although it can be there is nothing to say it is or is not from a passenger point of view.

Even if a passenger insists the cabin crew will likely ask them to take their seats, buckle up and await any further instructions. It's possible that the cabin crew is not even informed of anything as the pilots try and work the problem.


The later part of your question is answered here and the general answer is, unless you are a trained pilot it's hard to actually know if something is going wrong. There is a very interesting example of this from the Air Florida Flight 90 incident which is the only incident I know of where a non flying pilot spotted an issue and took action, this would be a fairly rare case;

Survivors of the crash indicated the trip over the runway was extremely rough, with survivor Joe Stiley – a businessman and private pilot – saying that he believed that they would not get airborne and would "fall off the end of the runway". When the plane became airborne, Stiley told his co-worker (and survivor) Nikki Felch to assume the crash position, with some nearby passengers following their example.

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    $\begingroup$ I misworded my question; I was thinking something else. I edited the question. $\endgroup$ – gparyani Sep 26 '18 at 17:44
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    $\begingroup$ @gparyani i have added a second half to address the later part of the question which is more a less a dupe of this one $\endgroup$ – Dave Sep 26 '18 at 17:53
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    $\begingroup$ That "latter part" is more of a comment about myself than another question, but thanks for giving me the link. $\endgroup$ – gparyani Sep 26 '18 at 17:53
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Flight crew are the two in the cockpit. They would Aviate, Navigate and Communicate in that order. In large commercial plane they are separate from passenger by a cockpit door so they won’t know about your curiousity. Anyway their priority is the safety of flight, not to answer your question.

The cabin crew, on the other hand, may not know about what happen. They just know something is happening. Their job is to maintain order in the cabin. If they feel your action is against their job they may treat you as another problem and that is not a good thing.

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    $\begingroup$ Ah, sorry, I mistyped my question. I meant the latter paragraph. $\endgroup$ – gparyani Sep 26 '18 at 17:44
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This passenger would be second guessing the flight crew AND the cabin crew and insisting to them that they know better than them.

This passenger is going to be treated like the annoyance they are, told to go back to their seat and follow crew instructions.

They're not just obstructing the professionals from doing their jobs, this passenger is potentially causing serious harm by panicking other passengers.

If this passenger keep insisting on causing trouble, the crew may well be forced to physically restrain them, with the help of any air marshals that may be on board.

If and when there's something the passengers need to know or do, they'll be told.

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    $\begingroup$ This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post. - From Review $\endgroup$ – ymb1 Sep 28 '18 at 15:29
  • $\begingroup$ For comparison, a similar post was deleted. $\endgroup$ – ymb1 Sep 28 '18 at 15:32
  • $\begingroup$ @ymb1 I think this does answer the question. Although the tone is rather aggressive, the answer boils down to "If the passenger who wants to know what's going on is causing a disturbance, they'll be dealt with like any other unruly passenger." Not a complete answer but I think it is an answer. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Sep 28 '18 at 18:41
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    $\begingroup$ I feel this answer falls short of the standards of courtesy and respect that are expected here. $\endgroup$ – Daniele Procida Sep 29 '18 at 10:00

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