For those of you not familiar with Channel 9, it’s an exclusive feature on United Airlines that enables passengers to listen to pilots’ communication with each other and ATC. While this feature isn’t the only reason I am loyal to United, it’s a neat perk, and I like it for a few reasons. First of all, as a Cessna pilot that is on the “radio” quite a bit, it’s fascinating to hear similar correspondence with 250,000 pound jets, instead of the 2,500 pound props I’m used to flying. It’s our only connection with the outside world when the aircraft door is shut, and can be especially informative during delays, times of heavy traffic, etc. Lastly, it can be incredibly entertaining at major airports, like JFK, ORD, LAX, where a passenger can listen to airlines from virtually every corner of the world.
It’s important to note that Channel 9 is at the Captain’s discretion, so the availability of it can vary from flight to flight. Up until recently I would say it was available about 90-95% of the time, a pretty good average. The 5-10% of pilots who do not turn it on, which I respect, did so mainly because they have had bad experiences in the past with “armchair” pilots in the cabin, which I do believe has happened to some. Over the past few months, however, it has come to my attention that the availability of Channel 9 has dropped significantly – to under 50% of flights. I have a pretty good sample size given my frequent travels – I flew over 100 segments on United last year and am approaching 30 for this year.
So the obvious question is “why the sharp decline?” There is a heated debate on the issue over at FlyerTalk.com, including the views of many pilots, most of whom are generally “pro-Channel 9.” Here’s my take on what’s going on, based on the discussion in that thread, talking to many pilots, email correspondence with the union, as well as talking to passengers.
While I don’t directly think it’s a union campaign, I do believe it has to do with the continuing management/union feud at United. Most pilots with whom I have spoken that don’t turn on Channel 9 choose not to because of “communications being recorded by passengers and put on YouTube.” While that may seem like a valid argument on the surface, there are some issues with it. First of all, there are MANY ways to listen to ATC outside of Channel 9, including liveatc.net, a tuner from your local electronics store, etc. Also, while I have seen a few videos on YouTube that cover Channel 9, all of them paint it in a positive light, only pointing out what a cool feature it is and how it’s exclusive to United. I simply don’t buy this argument, although I do believe that some pilots think it’s a legitimate concern.
What it comes down to, in my opinion, is an easy way for pilots to protest against management without getting in trouble. This unfortunately stretches to many parts of the job beyond Channel 9, with the “I’m not doing more than I have to” attitude for some. While there’s very little we can do about it, I would urge everyone that enjoys Channel 9 to thank the pilots on the way off your flights for turning on Channel 9, and still thank the non-Channel 9 pilots on the way out for the safe ride, but mention how you wish Channel 9 would have been on. I usually ask the Flight Attendant before the flight whether Channel 9 will be on, or otherwise just visit the Flight Deck and ask the Captain directly. Sometimes I can change their decision or it was an honest oversight of not flipping the switch, but most of the time they still say “no” if they wouldn’t have had it on to begin with.
What makes me further think it’s an issue of professionalism are the announcements of various pilots that turn on Channel 9. In my experience if the pilot makes a detailed announcement over the PA either before departure or after takeoff and has a professional tone to their announcement, Channel 9 will be on. If the first announcement from the flight deck is “Flight Attendants prepare for takeoff” and the second announcement is “Folks, the seatbelt sign is off, feel free to move about the cabin,” chances are no Channel 9 for you. There are, of course, exceptions to this, but I have found it to be a good rule of thumb.
My hope is that United doesn’t get too many complaints to the point that they just get rid of it altogether, since I’m convinced that about 40% of pilots at United are totally pro-Channel 9 and keep it on almost all the time. I think with an improvement in management/employee relations we’ll see an increase in Channel 9, although who knows if that will ever happen. We can hope, right?