Atlantic Unbound

NPR Commentary -- November 20, 1995
by James Fallows

Buckle up -- please

Recently my wife and I flew to Chicago while it was having an ice storm. The flight was hours late in departing, once in the air it kept plunging ominously, and when it finally touched down everyone aboard, no doubt including the crew, had the same two thoughts in mind. Number one -- Thank God we are living, and number two -- Get Me Off this plane.

Those weren't the thoughts we heard, however. Even as passengers were winding up their thank-you prayers the flight attendant announced that on behalf of the airline she wanted to be the First to welcome us to Chicago, they hoped the delay would be no problem, and when our future plans called for air travel, blah blah blah.

At that moment I had a breakthrough in my long attempt to understand just why air travel has become so horrible. Until then I had concentrated on the tangible factors -- shrinking seats, nonexistent food, the choice between unaffordable first class and unendurable coach. But I realized that day that language and truth were involved too.

Airline language has always been peculiar, with its stress patterns that are found in no actual human language. "The captain HAS turned on the seat belt sign, so we DO ask that you remain seated." But the language has become nearly 100 per cent insincere as well.

Airline talk is not exactly lying, since that implies that someone is deceived. Instead what makes it remarkable is that both the employees who say it and the passengers who hear it disbelieve it totally as it's being said. "We ask you to give your full attention to the flight attendants for this important safety demonstration" -- this while passengers are doing their crossword puzzles, avoiding their seatmates, completely ignoring the attendants who know they'll be ignored. "We are expecting a full flight, so please do use the space beneath the seat as your primary storage area" -- this while passengers are engaged in the war of each against all for space in the overhead bins. For the last few months you haven't been able to get on a plane without answering the moronic but repeated question of whether suspicious strangers have given you packages to carry on board. "We invite you to sit back, relax, and tell us if there is anything we can do to make your flight more enjoyable." Oh sure. How refreshing it would be to hear instead something closer to the truth, such as: "Look, we know these seats are incredibly cramped, but if you want discount tickets this is what we've got to do."

One definition of growing up is that you learn sometimes not to say exactly what's on your mind. "Gee, Mommy, why is that man so fat?" But whoever writes airplane lingo might get in touch with his inner child and remember that, once in a while, even grownups can tell the truth.

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Copyright © (1995), by James Fallows. All Rights Reserved.