Friday, March 16, 2007


International Eavesdropping

around the worldGeek that I am, I love listening to the pilots on United flights as they communicate with various control towers. This is particularly fun on cross-continental flights as accents change from world-weary New Yorkers scolding pilots, to cheery Irish greeting good morning, to the clipped English efficiently landing planes. The other direction is fun too. Last time I flew across the US, then over parts of Russia (!) before finally entering Japanese airspace. A United pilot once told me that he struggles sometimes with female Japanese air traffic control operators; their accents aren't so bad, he says, but the pitch of their voices is unnaturally high.

All across the globe, all these people communicate in various forms of English; labored, slurry, high-pitched, etc. Except, that is, where there is a little problem. Last time I was in Japan, I sat there on the runway in Narita listening to all the planes coming and going. And then we just sat. And sat. And sat. The Japanese air traffic controller continued to ask us to sit. And then he asked others to sit and wait. And wait we did, until finally some ANA pilot had had enough and switched to Japanese and asked--ever so politely--just what the hell was going on. At that, the Japanese air traffic controller became animated. His Japanese even went up a little in pitch I'd say, and he very freely admitted that a JAL plane was having a problem--a blown tire--and we couldn't take off until the runway was cleared of debris. There was much fluid going back and forth of thanking for this information. And then the world returned back to highly formal, dare I say even intimidating English.

A JAL plane. But of course.

Much, much later, a little announcement was made in English that the runway had been cleared of "debris" and takeoffs would resume. And off we went. What, I wondered, did the non-Japanese speaking pilots think of all this? Perhaps it was just business as usual.

First posted on Japundit

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