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Social media and the implications for pilots

by Cpt. Dave Fielding BALPA rep

Define the word ‘celebrity’. Not so long ago, you could say that being a celebrity meant you did a job that the public were interested in and the mainstream media reported on. Since the advent of social media, however, that definition has widened and blurred considerably. We now have ‘internet celebrities’ who embody more than ever before Andy Warhol’s famous description of 15 minutes of fame. People unwittingly find themselves to be a massive internet celebrity for doing the most trivial of things: Candace Payne, for example, could not possibly have known that filming herself playfully donning a Chewbacca mask in a car park would result in her being a media sensation with a slot on Saturday Night Live, all within three days.

Why is this relevant to being a pilot, you may ask? Well, after a recent training trip, I had the ‘pleasure’ of being a brief internet celebrity, albeit (mercifully) anonymously. A baulked landing is nothing spectacular in our world; unusual perhaps, but just one of the many things we train for regularly. However, there are plenty of people out there who find this sort of thing absolutely fascinating, particularly if it involves a big jet. I was busily beating myself up for not getting it right, as you do as a professional pilot, and arrived at my hotel where I was astonished to find a Facebook message ping onto my phone. It said: ‘Hi Capt F: was a passenger on your flight today and just wondered what the reason was for the go-around.’

What? He’d clocked my name and tracked me down within two hours. I have a Facebook page, but can’t remember the last time I posted on it, and there are certainly no personal details on there. How on earth did he manage to do it? Worse was to come. By the time I’d gone out with the crew for something to eat and returned to the hotel, a friend texted to congratulate me on the YouTube go-around video. A spotter happened to have his camera and tripod set up, and I watched in horror as my misjudgement was splashed all over the internet in HD glory. It made headline local news in the city, and within days was in the UK national media, which pushed the YouTube viewings over the 300,000 mark. Thankfully, a bigger story broke the next day and I was chip paper.

Spreading the word
The whole episode was unsettling, to say the least. Ours is a difficult and complicated job: mistakes happen, you learn and move on. That’s the way it has always worked, and always will. But the advent of the internet and social media has meant that because of the nature of what we do, we are of great interest to a large number of people who can now find out a lot about us in a very short space of time. Our mistakes can easily become public property to be commented on and discussed by people all over the world. It’s sobering stuff. I talked about it on a subsequent trip with a co-pilot who is very clued up on social media, by which I mean he not only understands how Twitter works, but he also uses Instagram, which I had previously thought was something that happens on a stag night. He’d been sent a picture of my go-around while I was still airborne flying the circuit. As if that wasn’t scary enough, a few hours after we landed (uneventfully, I hasten to add) he sent me a picture of us in the flare, which had been posted as a matter of course on a spotters’ website.

All of this set me thinking: a minor training event had a disproportionate fallout. What would it be like in the case of a major incident? As part of my union role, I’ve dealt with a lot of incidents over many years, several of them generating considerable media interest. I’ve watched the time it takes journalists to track down the home address of a pilot reduce to very little indeed – someone can now be knocking on the door in little more than an hour or two. They quickly know who your friends and family are, and are all over them for a quote about you. No shortage of pictures either, as you’ve helpfully provided them on your Facebook page, including some hilarious ones taken on a nightstop, which all of a sudden don’t look so funny in the Daily Mail. It’s enough to make you wonder if you should disconnect completely, delete all your social media accounts and go and live in a Scottish croft and raise sheep with all that spare time you now have because you aren’t glued to the internet.

Taking control
Richard Toomer, BALPA Head of Communications and External Relations, advises taking a sensible middle ground: “Pilots are held in high esteem with the general public, and are regarded as one of the most trusted professionals. However, this can mean that any small mistake is far more noticeable and if you do have an online presence (as most of us do), you are easily contactable.

“You are entitled to a personal life and with that may come social media activity but, being in a profession that puts you front and centre of the flying public, it’s worth considering how you would look to an outsider should they stumble across your Twitter or Facebook profile.

“It’s good practice to think: ‘Would I feel comfortable with passengers on my flight seeing this?’ If the answer is no, either remove the incriminating post or adjust your privacy settings to the highest level.”

So what conclusions can be drawn from my rather chilling experience? Perhaps the best insight on how to operate in this social media-dominated world comes from the generation that has grown up with it and has known no difference. My late-teen children fully understand the power and perils of social media. Painful though it is to admit it, their words are wise:

“Everything you post is fair game and you can’t complain if it is twisted and misused. It’s easy to remove stuff from your own account (though someone will probably have a copy), but watch what others are posting about you or pictures they are tagging you in.

“If you are uncomfortable with what is there about you, then ask for it to be removed. You could use Snapchat as it is time-limited and you can control who sees your photos, but you’re too old for that.”

Charming. Anyone know where I can get hold of a brochure for crofts in Scotland? Or are they only available on the internet?