Decoding What Airline Pilots Actually Mean

Flying on a plane can be nerve-racking. Not only are you 30,000 feet in the air trapped inside of a metal tube, but the pilots and flight attendants seem to be really good at speaking in their own language, one that you sometimes don’t understand. Wouldn’t it be great if you could figure out what they mean with the mysterious signals and phrases? Here is a quick guide to what airline pilots and crews really mean.

Doors to Arrival and Crosscheck

Cockpit view of pilot with hand on controls guiding plane in flight
Credit: l i g h t p o e t / Shutterstock

At the end of the flight as you’re rolling toward the gate, the captain or head flight attendant might come over the intercom and say something like “Flight attendants, doors to arrival and crosscheck.” It might sound like fancy airline language, but there’s nothing menacing about it.

“Doors to arrival” just asks the flight attendants to disable the emergency floatation devices on the doors. If you open the door before the floatation device is disarmed, the big inflatable slides would come out from the doors, allowing you to slide your way down to the tarmac. While that might sound like fun, it would also make a mess of the terminal, so they just disarm them.

If you ever hear the pilot or flight attendant say “crosscheck,” it just means that someone needs to double check whatever work was done to make extra sure it was done right.

Open Window Shades

View from the inside of airplane looking out through window at clouds and blue sky
Credit: Sarana Nakarat / Shutterstock

No, the flight attendants don’t ask you to raise your shades just to be mean and cut into your naptime. Raising the shades is a safety measure that allows the flight attendants to see outside in case of an emergency. Most airline accidents happen during takeoff and landing, which is why they ask that your shades be raised for both events. If an evacuation becomes necessary, the flight attendants need to be able to see where they’re evacuating to. It also allows everyone’s eyes to adjust to the light so that they aren’t disoriented if they have to exit the plane in a hurry.

The pilot may also request that the shades be raised if there’s a potential issue. It’s a way of asking the crew and passengers for help looking for the problem. The more eyes that can see outside of the plane, the quicker any issues can be brought to the attention of the crew. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the pilot expects something to go wrong. It’s just another safety measure.

Flight Level

A plane taking off from the runway
Credit: randyfath/ Unsplash

If you ever hear your captain come over the intercom and say something fancy like, “Flight level 330,” it’s just a cool pilot way to state the altitude of the plane. Flight level is measured in hundreds of feet above sea level. For instance, flight level 330 would be equivalent to flying at 33,000 feet.

Last-Minute Paperwork

Aerial view of city lights at night from a plane
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While you’re sitting at the gate waiting for the plane to start moving, the last thing you want to hear is the pilot say something like, “We’re just finishing up some last-minute paperwork and should be on our way shortly.” Once you hear that, you know you’re in for a long trip.

Are the pilots really doing last-minute paperwork? Sort of. “Last-minute paperwork” usually means that the pilots and flight command are revising the flight plan, readjusting weight on the plane, or waiting for maintenance to update the log book. Either way, you’re going to be sitting for a while longer.

Chimes

Airplane in sky, taken from below
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During your flight, it might sound like a doorbell is going off every couple of minutes. Sometimes it’s one chime; sometimes it’s two or three. Each chime has a different meaning to the flight crew so they can communicate efficiently across the plane. The chime systems vary between airlines, so it’s not always easy to decode their meaning.

Typically, the fewer chimes there are, the less serious a matter is. One chime can warn the flight attendants that some slight turbulence is coming up or even something as simple as the pilots wanting a cup of coffee. Call signals also come across the speakers as one chime.

Two chimes signal the altitude of the plane. Every 10,000 feet, the pilot will let out two chimes to keep the crew up to date with the flight plan. It could also signify a call on the crew phone.

Three chimes usually means some kind of emergency like a sick passenger who needs immediate help or that there is some serious turbulence up ahead. If three chimes are accompanied by the "fasten seatbelt" sign, get ready for a rough ride.

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