The Good Word

Airline English

Why flight attendants talk like that.

Illustration by Christine Larsen

In an opening monologue not long ago, Late Night host Jay Leno told his audience that Air Force One had hit a patch of turbulence during a recent trip, forcing President Clinton to return the flight attendant “to her full upright and locked position.”

What social historians of the future may find most notable about Leno’s joke is not what it says about popular perceptions of Bill Clinton’s sex life, but what it says about the language of air travel, and how its sui-generis vocabulary (“seat pocket,” “ground personnel,” “emergency flotation”), its stilted constructions (“We are now ready to pre-board those passengers who …”), its sometimes counterintuitive rhythms and emphases ("The captain has turned off the seat-belt sign. …”), its unblinking, look-you-in-the-eye reliance on euphemisms (“In the unlikely event of a water landing …”), its blasé invocation of an all-enveloping legal regime (“We remind you that it is a federal offense to tamper with, disable, or destroy any lavatory smoke detector. …”), and its utter regularity across corporate and international boundaries–how all these things have become matters of mass familiarity.

Illustration by Christine Larsen

Airline English has, in a way, become the linguistic equivalent of the worldwide nonverbal graphic system that conveys such meanings as “ladies’ room,” “no parking,” “first aid,” and “information.” It is just as streamlined, just as stylized, often in the same oddly archaic sort of way. The worldwide symbol for “cocktail lounge” is a martini glass with olive, even though martinis themselves are a relatively uncommon sight these days. The symbol for “pharmacy” is a mortar and pestle. Airline language is similarly atavistic. Whenever else does one hear the word “stow” being used, except as part of the command to “stow your belongings in the overhead bins”?

Actually, the other place where “stow” is frequently used is on board boats and ships. One significant element of airline language, including many of its archaisms, derives from the nautical terminology that the pioneers of air travel appropriated–not unnaturally, given the obvious parallels between the two modes of transportation (fragile means of conveyance, built to negotiate a boundless, often turbulent medium of fluid or gas). An airplane is a “craft,” and its “crew,” including a “captain,” “first officer,” and “purser,” operates from a “deck” inside a “cabin.” The aircraft is segmented by “bulkheads.” Its kitchens are “galleys.” It carries cargo in “holds.”

Illustration by Christine Larsen

But the compressed time of air travel gives its language a focused, liturgical quality that oceanic travel has never had (at least for passengers), from the initial welcome aboard to the cautionary homily to the ritual meal–on more and more flights, a merely symbolic activity–to the final “Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye.” The linguistic contours of a typical airline flight are every bit as scripted as those of a religious service. For American carriers, the Nicene Creed of official cabin talk comes in the form of a number of Federal Aviation Administration regulations, such as No. 121.571 (“Briefing passengers before take-off”) and No. 121.573 (“Briefing passengers: extended overwater operations”). The subject matter of these dense passages of text, which in their original versions date back to the early 1960s, concerns everything from seat belts and life jackets to emergency exits and oxygen masks. The regulations are distilled by each airline into detailed scripts which are reviewed by company lawyers and must be approved, finally, by the FAA. The scripts are then circulated to in-flight personnel.

Credal formulations aside, airlines have considerable latitude when it comes to routine announcements; again, though, the language is often fastidiously scripted, down to even the most casual remarks. (“Would you like Coke or Sprite?” appears in a script provided by the Association of Professional Flight Attendants.) Most of the dozen or so airlines contacted were reluctant to furnish actual transcripts of approved language manuals, although one veteran pilot (with United) asserted: “You’re gonna hear the same thing, but you’ll hear it just a bit differently.” Southwest Airlines did provide an example of an unusual rap announcement that some of its ground personnel have used. It reads, in part: “We board in groups of thirty,/ According to your card;/ One thru thirty boards first,/ It’s really not that hard.” And it goes on, “Federal law prohibits smoking/ On most domestic flights./ No smoking is permitted,/ So don’t even try to light.” Southwest’s corporate culture of officially sanctioned iconoclasm, if there can be such a thing, is far from typical.

Illustration by Christine Larsen

From time to time, passengers may notice a crew member reading an announcement from a laminated text–changes do get made and are distributed airline-wide–but for the most part the scripts are committed to memory, and the habits born of rigorous training die hard. Not long ago, one of my sisters discovered that she was to be the only passenger on a commercial flight, and settled in for the journey. As she prepared for the plane to push back, a flight attendant materialized for the safety briefing, and in the one concession to the circumstances, sat down in the seat next to my sister instead of standing in the aisle at the front of the cabin. The dull monotone was the same as ever. “As we prepare for takeoff,” the flight attendant said, looking at my sister from six inches away, “please check that your seat belt is fastened”–and here she made the requisite clicking and unclicking movements with the demonstration model–“and do take time to look through the safety information in the seat pocket in front of you. Our aircraft is equipped with four emergency exits. …”

As you might imagine, my sister, at that point, was ready to use them all.