Lingua Aerofranca: A Traveler's Guide To Airline Speak

This is the season when the whole Northern Hemisphere appears to be heading for the airport. From Heathrow and O'Hare to BOS and LAX, crowded terminals and planes testify to the irresistible summertime urge to be somewhere else, far from work and everyday routines.

For jaded business travelers, midsummer flights represent more of the same. But for vacationing families and infrequent flyers, there may be a new lexicon to learn - airline-speak.

This is the industry, after all, that gave the English language the word "deplane," a verb construction Amtrak has mercifully not copied with "detrain." It's also the industry that redefined "meal" to mean a tiny foil packet of pretzels and a soft drink, and the industry that gives creative new meaning to expressions of time, such as "soon" and "shortly." Beware the soothing cockpit announcement: "Folks, we have a little problem with an indicator light. Mechanics are on their way, and we hope to be under way shortly...." Uh-oh. There goes the on-time arrival as "shortly" often stretches into a lengthy delay.

The latest redefinitions begin in the gate area. What used to be called the desk, where agents issue boarding passes, is now known as the "podium," as in, "Passenger Smith, please report to the podium." That usage doesn't quite fit dictionary definitions, but Webster take note.

Once aboard the plane, "Passenger Smith" and all his fellow travelers are not always referred to as passengers or customers. The preferred new designation on some airlines is "guest" or "flying partner." As one flight attendant announced last month, "You may have watched this safety video many times. But as a courtesy to our guests who haven't seen it, please give us your attention."

Members of the cabin crew themselves have undergone a linguistic evolution that upgraded them from stewardess to flight attendant. Some now prefer an even newer term: purser.

"My name is Sharon and I'll be your purser today," one attendant announced on a Chicago-to-Boston flight. For those who think of pursers as officers on ships in charge of accounts, this nautical usage at 35,000 feet sounds oddly misplaced.

Other high-flying lingo may not be new, but it continues to mystify, as when the pilot announces, "Flight attendants, arm doors for departure" and "Disarm doors for arrival." It sounds so military, conjuring up images of weapons and warfare.

Some pretenses add amusement. Three times in recent months, attendants, acting like maitre d's, have asked in formal tones, "Will you be joining us for dinner this evening?" as if passengers - er, guests - wedged sardine-like in their seats had a choice of restaurants. "No thanks," I've been tempted to reply, "I'm meeting a friend at the cafe out on the wing."

Like travel itself, language is changeable and unpredictable - a constant adventure. And just as every traveler needs a sense of humor, perhaps every airline does too, even if it's unintended, adding levity to the sometimes trying task of getting from here to there and back again.

Not long ago an ad for United Air Lines made an enigmatic claim: "Airline-speak not spoken here." Promises, promises. A wary airline guest suspects that plain English will return when aisles widen, legroom lengthens, and filet mignon appears on coach menus - and not a moment before.

Just as every traveler needs a sense of humor, so too does every airline, even if it's unintended.

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