21 March 2012

Plane Language

Air travel is now unpleasant in so many ways that you can hardly list them. In economy class, the romance has been drained out of the experience by a couple of decades of cost-cutting. The horror has a precise starting date, according to The New York Times, and it’s earlier than you might think:
“Industry experts trace the problem back to 1987, when American Airlines removed a single olive from its salads to save a little money.”
I take the comedian Louis C.K.’s point that we complain too much about air travel, which is really a marvel if you think about it (“you’re sitting in a chair in the sky”). The one indignity that I’m becoming less and less tolerant of is the language of the airport and the skies. Lots of communication happens—from the fine print telling us whether our tickets are refundable to the flight attendant’s cheery “would you like a beverage, sir?”—but very little at a human level. The language used by airlines and the Transportation Security Administration is often distorted, plastic, unidiomatic, excessive and generally frustrating.

One language-breaking imperative is making some customers feel more special than others. There are so many different status levels and privileges that even someone who studies these things on an almost hermeneutical level as I do is left confused. Dividing customers into ever narrower bands of worth has led to a proliferation of essentially meaningless terms, some related to precious metals (“Silver,” “Gold,” “Platinum”), perception of privilege (“Elite”), and the idea that the world is one’s oyster (“Global Services”). Lest we forget, these status levels have nothing to do with the classes of service on the actual airplanes (First, Business, Economy and now even BusinessFirst). I, for example, am a Silver Elite on United Airlines, which entitles me to Premier Access, which means I board through the same lane as First and Business Class passengers, but in Boarding Group 4. This is designed to make me feel special, but instead I get the sense I should have a prisoner number or at least a barcode. United recently changed their boarding procedure and not even the airline’s own employees yet understand what the eight group numbers signify. While boarding a flight in Toronto—polite, mild-mannered Toronto!—I watched passengers almost riot when the gate agent made a misleading announcement about the boarding order.

I was delighted to find that I qualified for Premier check-in at Newark airport on a recent trip and an agent regally waved me between the stanchions into the lines reserved for special people. But the experience was tarnished when I reached a fork in the road and a second agent started shouting something at me: “Gorbatnum! Gorbatnum!” I heard. I was surprised that my first encounter with a Martian should take place at an airport in New Jersey. I told her that I didn’t understand, and instead of “take me to your leader!” she said as to an idiot child, “Gold or Platinum?” Confusingly, I was neither precious metal but had a (free) First Class upgrade. In that situation where logic and language both broke down, I became honorary gold and she directed me to step to the right instead of to the left. The check-in kiosks on the right and left were, of course, identical.

Kingfisher Airways in India brings “personal service” to a comical extreme. On every flight, the company’s flamboyant chairman, the liquor magnate Vijay Mallya, appears on the television screen at each seat before the plane takes off and personally welcomes you. He suggests that you are like guests in his own home—what kind of a house does he run?!—and that the flight attendants have been “personally selected” by him. No American carrier that I know of has yet reached this level of gaucheness. For me, at least, it has the opposite of the intended effect: I know Mallya doesn’t know who I am and if he wants to pretend that he does, he can go f*** himself.

Another major problem is the mechanistic nature of the communication. Flight attendants repeat the same spiel day in and day out, and so it is no wonder that they are not concerned with whether the niceties of human communication (tone, cadence, etc.) are present in their speech about seat belts. Flight attendants sometimes say “please stow all your carrion items” as though dead animals were the same as “carry-on”. They can’t be bothered to make the distinction. Security checkpoints are another place where thousands of people must be given the same message. Usually a human being stands next to the sad mass of humanity waiting to take off shoes and remove laptops from bags, and he or she intones ominously what the procedure du jour is. A simple recording would suffice but that would be too Orwellian. Here’s an idea: Make the procedures simpler.

For decades, airline pilots apparently tried to sound like Air Force pilots (which many of them had been) and Air Force pilots apparently tried to sound like Chuck Yeager. Yeager was the first man to break the sound barrier (in 1947) and had a recognizable drawl. I don’t think pilots aspire to this anymore but flight attendants still have some strange tics in their English that must go back to some mythical uber-flight attendant from the days when they were called stewards and stewardesses. One of them is a liberal use of the demonstrative pronoun “that”: They say things like “we’re going to begin that boarding process” or “make sure that carry-on is in the over-head bin or underneath the seat in front of you.” There is also a weird tendency to use pompous language like calling a magazine a “periodical” or offering passengers a “beverage.” Is that meant to remind us of a time when air travel actually called for such high-flown language?

The Legalese is also a problem because it means striving for a false precision. Why do they announce that it is a crime to “tamper with, disable or destroy lavatory smoke detectors”? No one except a member of Congress would believe that that says anything more than “tamper with lavatory smoke detectors” and yet those are the exact words of federal regulation FAR Sec. 135.127 (e). How can you destroy or disable anything without first tampering with it? (Arguably though the one universally good thing that’s happened to the in-flight experience in the last twenty years has been the ban on in-flight smoking put into effect nationally in the United States in 1999 but started in 1988. I distinctly remember in the early 2000s when planes finally stopped smelling like ashtrays.) Likewise the term “fully upright and locked positions” (which doesn’t even sound right when one is talking about both tray-tables and seats or rather “seat-backs” as they insist on calling them). Worse, I often hear “full, upright and locked” which makes absolutely no sense. Often we are reminded about FAA regulations, such as “obeying all lighted signs, placards and crew-member instructions” which is frankly not a refresher course I need. Why is everyone treated as though he/she had never been on a plane before? What if we could opt out? (I don’t just mean reading a magazine during the announcement—I find it jarring to receive a direct instruction to pay attention and then disobey it.)

What bothers me about flying is this break-down of language. It’s a bit like a police state where words don’t have quite the meaning they should. On a couple of recent flights my urge to correct was almost overwhelming—this is definitely an occupational hazard of grading undergraduate essays. The regimented procedures (which you generally can’t negotiate, unlike in much of life where appealing to people's sense of rationality makes a difference) lead to regimented, forced language. But I can amuse myself by thinking about the Monty Python sketch in which a pilot’s entire announcement is “There is absolutely no cause for alarm.” The passengers of course panic even though there really is no cause for alarm. At least that is a good, clear use of the English language.



It is easy to forget that the people who work for the airlines have more interesting lives than the safety announcements they make would suggest. To get their perspective, I regularly read Patrick Smith’s Ask the Pilot series (although he occasionally misses, as in his rather shallow recent post on India) and the podcast Betty in the Sky with a Suitcase.

No comments: