Plane Answers: Customs, hurricanes and those annoying ‘dings.’

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

Michael asks:

How are customs and immigration inspections handled for air crew? Is there a separate set of rules, since you won’t (usually) be staying for long. And if you do vacation perhaps, then what?

Some countries require a work visa for crew members, since part of the job involves working in their country.

There are usually separate lines for crew members, but other than that, there aren’t many differences during the customs inspection. There may be more restrictions for tax free imports for crew members than someone vacationing.

And when a crew member goes on vacation, they’re just like everyone else.

Guillermo asked:

On flights between North and South America, how are your flight plans affected by the presence of a hurricane in the Caribbean or Gulf? Do you fly over or around them?

This has been a difficult week to fly on the east coast of the U.S. and the Caribbean. Flights are dispatched only if they can avoid these hurricanes. Occasionally, deviations that add hundreds of miles to a flight plan may be necessary since we can’t fly over the tops of these storms safely.

I was flying to the Caribbean during Ike and Hanna and we were able to navigate well around both storms and enjoyed a rather smooth ride each time. My next Cockpit Chronicles entry will detail the path that we took around both Hanna and Ike complete with radar views and of course, pictures.

Michelle ‘chimes’ in:

The “dings” that go off over the cabin speakers on take off, landing, and during the flight – what do they mean? – I know that most people probably associate them with the seat belt sign or the electronic devices sign.

But on my last flight I really paid attention to them. It seems like they ding at certain altitudes maybe? I noticed that a little while after takeoff while we were still climbing the ding went off, but nothing really happened. The attendants were still in their jump seats and it wasn’t time for everyone to pull out their iPods yet.

This is just one other thing that knowing might help calm my nerves on each flight.

I’ve had a couple of people ask this question this week. These ‘dings’ fall into five different categories at my airline. I can’t speak to the procedures elsewhere, but I’m sure they’re similar.

  1. During the FAA required sterile cockpit period, any calls from the flight attendant can only pertain to a safety issue. This prevents distractions while we’re flying the departure or on the approach to land. So the moment the airplane has climbed above 10,000 feet, or descended below 10,000 feet, the no smoking sign is cycled to mark the end or beginning of the sterile period.
  2. Anytime the pilots turn on or off the fasten seatbelt sign or the no smoking sign.
  3. Anytime a passenger presses the fight attendant call button.
  4. Anytime a flight attendant or pilot calls on the interphone to another flight attendant in the front, mid or aft cabin, you’ll hear a double-ding.
  5. Finally, a repetitive ding signifies that someone is smoking in the lavatory. Don’t panic though–I’ve been on two airplanes where this repetitive ding was just a problem with the system that could only be reset on the ground, making for a rather annoying few hours for passengers.

If you think all those dings could get confusing or annoying, I wish you could experience what we live with in the cockpit. Boeing has seen fit to use the same ‘ding’ for just about every kind of alert up there. We have the flight attendant call ding, the SELCAL ding from ATC, the ground crew call ding, the seatbelt sign/no smoking sign ding, and on some airplanes we’re alerted when just about any new data is uploaded from the company including the winds, weights, weather or a new routing.

I had the opportunity to discuss this with two of the people at Boeing who were responsible for these alerts while I was sitting next to them while deadheading from Miami to Dallas one day.

When I complained about the single type of ‘ding’ for so many different types of events, they said they had studies that showed that people can differentiate between 6 or 7 different types of sounds.

They also pointed out that a message pops up on the EICAS (one of the front displays) when the ding comes on to let us know what the alert is. That’s only true on 30% of our 757/767’s. The older versions don’t have that text alert to supplement the dings.

Lately, we’ve had a couple of random airplanes that ding every time an ATIS (the airport weather) is printed up, even though we asked for this print out seconds earlier.

Boeing tends to get the cockpit and systems design elements right 99% of the time, but there are still some annoyances that pop up after we operate these airplanes for five, ten or even twenty years.

I guess there’s always hope that they’ll fix this issue on the 787. And maybe they’ll come up with a method to reduce the cabin dings as well.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for next Friday’s Plane Answers feature.