If you fly on Southwest Airlines regularly, chances are you’ve probably been on a flight where the cabin breaks into applause upon landing. This happens from time-to-time for various reasons. Often, it’s in response to a “sporty” approach in gusty winds or bad weather that has the Passengers who are not “comfortable fliers” clutching their armrests until touchdown.
Often, the raucous applause breaks out at the suggestion of the Flight Attendants via the P.A. system. You probably hear more of those comments on SWA because we are free to make flying more fun for our Passengers. Off-the-wall comments by our Flight Attendants are encouraged. (“Ladies and Gentleman, if you are not doing so at this time, please do so immediately. Thank you.”) My favorite PA comments are following a firm landing. (“Take THAT Mr. Runway!” or “Folks, that wasn’t the Captain’s fault. That wasn’t the First Officer’s fault. That was the asphalt.”)
Flight Attendant interaction with the Passengers is critical at times.
Once, in descent to Austin's old Robert Mueller Airport, we heard a call by another carrier reporting severe turbulence on climbout. There was a huge mass of weather to the north of Austin, but it was clear to the south along our arrival path. FAA regulations prohibit Pilots from flying into areas of known or reported severe turbulence so we had little time to determine whether we were legal to continue the arrival.
Once we were assured by ATC (Air Traffic Control) that the reporting aircraft was “in the weather” about 15 miles northwest of the field, we continued our approach and landing. Though our approach corridor had only been reported as “occasional moderate” turbulence, we encountered increasingly more “enthusiastic” bumps and deviations from our glidepath. Several times on the approach, the bottom would seemingly drop out of the plane as we entered strong sinking wind currents. On these occasions, we could hear the passengers' voices as the plane rode through the roller coaster ride on approach.
During all of this, the Flight Attendant seated in the rear of the plane was making hilarious (at the time) comments to the passengers. “I know these Pilots folks! We are going to be fine!” And another: “Hold on to your seatbelt with one hand, and hold the other hand over your head and yell YEE-HAWWW!” The passengers were still loud, but their surprise was immediately followed by laughter and clapping, even louder than the initial screams of surprise.
Up front, we had our hands full. My partner and I had decided to continue the approach as long as it was safe. We had an alternate route to Houston in clear air to the south. Realizing we were going to be able to land, I voiced my intention to the First Officer to make the landing an unequivocal and unmistakable “end to this carnival ride.”
The last couple hundred feet of the descent was just continuous bouncing and shuddering of the jet. I managed to get a decent landing out of the approach and came on with firm braking and full reverse. My message to the passengers: This ride is OVER. From the back was a thunderous applause followed by yelling and whistling for about 15 seconds.
As a Pilot, my primary job is to get the aircraft safely on the runway, in the landing zone and get it stopped well before the end of the runway. Smooth “greaser” landings are nice but not preferable to landing “in the zone.” After a sporty approach, it’s fun to hear the Passengers vote with their hands. It goes a little way toward making up for the inadvertent “pounder” landings all Pilots experience now and then.
In the case of the Austin approach, the cabin was jovial and laughter was contagious during deplaning, all thanks to the work by the compassionate and quick-thinking Flight Attendant. --A woman I had never met before in my life.
In my mind on approach and after landing, I was applauding her.