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?

  1. February 4th, 2008 at 8:28 pm

    Ryan said,

    lucky, I agree 100% – I have been hearing Channel 9 on a lot less of my United flights lately.
    If United were by far the best airline in the sky, I wouldn’t mind it so much. But we UA passengers have to put up with a lot of garbage from United Airlines these days: a terrible on-time %, a horrible website, grouchy employees and generally declining service on all levels.
    Having something cool and unique like Channel 9 made going through all that much more worth it to maintain my loyalty to United. But since Channel 9 is definitely on the decline lately, I am thinking twice about flying United.

  2. February 4th, 2008 at 10:15 pm

    DullesJason said,

    Ryan makes a good point–what little United does right should not be ditched.

  3. February 5th, 2008 at 12:10 am

    Oliver said,

    5/6 flights had Ch9 so far. The one that didn’t had music on it (can the pilot do that?).

  4. February 6th, 2008 at 9:47 am

    lucky said,

    Yep, I’m pretty sure that the pilot is able to turn the switch so music is on as opposed to just dead air.

  5. February 10th, 2008 at 4:09 pm

    ulrike said,

    Shame – costs nothing and makes people happy. What else does the Airline have that gives them that kind of ROI,

  6. February 24th, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    Did a United Pilot Coach His Passengers “Idiots”? | Online Travel Review said,

    [...] pilot calling coach passengers “Idiots” over Channel 9.   Maybe this is why pilots hate Channel 9, SHARETHIS.addEntry({ title: “Did a United Pilot Coach His Passengers “Idiots”?”, [...]

  7. May 16th, 2010 at 9:32 am

    kevin said,

    I’m a million miler at UAL and though the pilots may think they are sticking it to their management, think again. Of my 600 segments in the last five years, I’ve only seen ONE United exec. It was Glenn Tilton on his FIRST day of work. Given the fact I have had at least 600 seat partners in that time, not one was a UAL mucky muck. I love channel 9 and I hope the pilots put safety first, customers second and their gripes (no matter how legitimate) somewhere down the line. After all, if this Continental thing works out, I hear the pilots will probably get a raise so maybe things are looking up. I hope so!

  8. June 10th, 2010 at 10:43 pm

    jack said,

    Biggest problem with channel 9 in last few months is that some passengers have been recording it and placing it on the internet. It’s nice to have it on for passengers to listen to air traffic control, but now that it is often getting recorded by some passengers, most pilots have started turning it off.

  9. September 3rd, 2010 at 2:57 am

    Rodger said,

    Im one of the people that bring channel 9 on youtube. Why are pilots turning it off if its on the internet. I beleive its a good advertisement to bring aviation enthusiasts onboard more UA flights.

  10. February 4th, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    Air Canada Needs Channel 9 - FlyerTalk Forums said,

    [...] Originally Posted by 2MM_Guy For us non-UA people, can someone describe channel 9? http://boardingarea.com/onemil…g-of-the-past/ [...]

  11. August 19th, 2011 at 9:30 pm

    Nathaniel said,

    I dont see why the pilots care if channel 9 is on or off. Its a cool feature, why not just leave it on?

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