United Plans to Keep Channel 9 (Air Traffic Control as Part of Inflight Audio)

When I wrote about changes already announced and those still pending with the United-Continental merger last week, I meant to mention ‘Channel 9’ and simply forgot.

United has long offered one of my favorite onboard features, at the pilot’s discretion, the ability for passengers to listen to air traffic control (on channel 9 of inflight audio). Pilots don’t always turn it on, some explicitly don’t like it and will not, but I’ll often ask a flight attendant whether channel 9 will be on for the flight and if they’ve learned during preflight briefing that it will not be I will politely request that they ask the pilot to reconsider, frequently they will when a passenger is requesting it.

Look, I don’t care about the tulip. I suppose I do care about the Blue Carpet replacing the Red Carpet since it appears to support all elites boarding together (mayhem) even though they appear to still be calling top tier elites first. But channel 9 is a real differentiator, something that makes United United. Like Rhapsody in Blue which thank goodness they are keeping.

It appears that they are indeed keeping channel 9 at least according to United’s twitter feed.

Now, that doesn’t mean that they will roll it out to Continental’s aircraft. And it doesn’t mean that it will remain in the future to the extent that the overall inflight entertainment product should change. And Continental pilots may well be less inclined to turn it on, since they aren’t used to it, it isn’t part of the Continental culture. So I suspect that it may become less available than in the past, especially as the fleets integrate and the pilots operate across the entire fleet — you’ll need a legacy United aircraft and perhaps a legacy United pilot as well.

I do hope it doesn’t die a slow death, at least it appears it will not die a fast one. It’s a real customer-pleaser, and product differentiator, in a world where those are few and far between.

(HT: Infinite1K on Milepoint)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I love channel 9 its a great way to know why we are circling and the best was one night it was a really rough turblent flight so i put on channel 9 just in time to hear air traffic control call my flight number ua** do you want to declare an emergency we will give you a direct approach.

    The pilot comes back with well we think we are fine we have a pressuration alarm when going above 25000 so we will stay at current altitude and come in normally.

  2. I would like UA to explain to CO pilots and management the benefits experienced by UA customers whom can listen to channel 9.

  3. I do love listening to channel 9, especially when on the ground waiting to depart, and on approach.

    It is my impression that far fewer pilots have been turning on channel 9 in the past couple of years – maybe 50% of my flighte recently, whereas it used to be more like 90%

  4. 9 will likely not get rolled into the legacy CO aircraft, solely due to the costs involved in re-certifying the IFE system for onboard use. All it is to add 9 is adding an extra line from the radio in the cockpit to all the seats, but doing that means a total FAA re-cert process.

  5. I am a Premier Exec with United and Senator with Lufthansa which means I do more than 190,000 flying miles per year. I Love listening to Channel 9, ATC audio and am happy that United will keep it. I was a pilot many years ago, and like listening to what’s going on around me. I realize that it gets turned off from time to time (when there is an issue, as when a United 767 flap didn’t lower properly and the Pilots, even though they were figuring out solutions to the problem, turned it off to avoid panicking listeners) and that is to be expected. Across the Atlantic, when the planes switch to 123.45 VHF, it is even more interesting because sports results are exchanged between plots, and other non-ATC info (like a BA pilot asking what is Cactus? to American pilots listening in, and the subsequent banter (Cactus is US Airways call inherited from America West which they bought some time ago).

    As the author above said, this really differentiates between United and other airlines.

  6. I just completed a series of international and domestic flights where Ch. 9 was not activated. When I asked, a flight attendant informed me ‘off the record’ that the pilots were refusing to turn it on, a boycott of sorts, because a passenger complained about something a United pilot had said over the radio. Sad, really. I like Ch. 9 and think it does differentiate United with other carriers. Hopefully the pilots can take their ‘union blinders’ off long enough to realize the benefit to the bottom line.

  7. If I have a choice of airlines for a trip I will take United just so I can listen to Channel 9.

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