Ask the pilot

What happened to the "u" in Qantas? Who came up with the immortal "British West Indian Airways West Indies Airways"? And other strange tales of airline names.

Published October 3, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

What do SwissAir, Egyptair, and Delta Airlines have in common? For one, they're all spelled wrong.

While I risk dragging this week's column into a morass of pedantic minutiae, I'm compelled to clear up a few of aviation's more pervasive errors of usage and spelling. It's a problem made worse by the major media, which frequently jumbles up the names and designations of airlines, aircraft and airports.

It got so bad that I've refused to read any more post-crash articles or airline stories even in my favorite hometown paper, the Boston Globe, lest I find myself spitting out coffee and having to dash off yet another petulant correction. Half a dozen of my complaints to the ombudsman have already gone unanswered, and I imagine printouts of my e-mails hung on a bulletin board in a Globe office, Magic Markered with comments like "crank" and "get a life."

Which I should. But I still rarely make it through any aviation-related reportage, whether in print or on television, without gasping over one or two outright errors or misleading distortions, which finds me, again, at the iMac in a sputtering hunt for addresses. (After an Air France Concorde crashed outside Paris in the summer of 2000, I counted more than 10 mistakes in less than an hour of major network coverage.) Granted, the vernacular of this weird business is a tough one for the layperson to make sense of, with thousands of acronyms, terms and procedures practically begging to be misshapen into scary-sounding scenarios: "near-miss," "missed approach," "declared an emergency." But at least have the titles and formalities right.

Even Salon is out to get me. On Sept. 26 my column made mention of Syrianair, a Middle Eastern airline with a surprisingly good safety record. Salon's copy editors, however, ran the reference as "SyrianAir." I saw this and launched an immediate, highly indignant protest. They rolled their eyes and routed me to the airline's Web site, which sure enough speaks of ... SyrianAir.

That showed me.

Except, believe it or not, the Web site is wrong. A third-party job for English speakers outside the Middle East, the page appears to be up and running sans proofreading. If the French-to-English hilarity at Africa's STA is any indication (also linked to in the same article), we shouldn't be shocked by any Web-borne goof-ups emanating from Arabic.

Would Microsoft enjoy being MicroSoft or Micro Soft? OK, the airline of Syria is no supranational powerhouse of industry, but let's not perpetuate some underpaid Web host's carelessness. Besides, Syrianair is government owned, and we need that country's help in locating Saddam's cleverly hidden nuclear warheads and anthrax-packed Scuds.

We could, of course, bypass this whole confabulation by going with the airline's more formal name, which is Syrian Arab Airlines, even if nobody calls it that. For that matter, Syria itself is known officially as al-Jamhouriya al-Arabiya as-Suriya. Try putting that on the side of a plane.

If you find this discussion mindlessly trivial, by all means keep reading. Here's a list of the more annoying and recurring aero-errata I come across. Subtract five points for each you've been guilty of ...

-- Alas now defunct after 70 years, it was neither SwissAir nor Swiss Air. It was Swissair.

-- In the same spirit we find Icelandair, Finnair, and Luxair. Plus our friend Syrianair, even if Salon is loath to trust me.

-- On the contrary, Gamil al-Batouti was the suicidal first officer at the controls of EgyptAir Flight 990. That is alleged, but for now (and likely forever) unproven. What we know for certain, though, is he did not work for Egyptair or Egypt Air.

-- There is no Delta Airlines based in Atlanta, Ga. There is only Delta Air Lines. The legendary Eastern also shared this old-timey three-word style.

-- All right, but even I get confused by the Koreans. In the old days one flew to Seoul on KAL, as everyone called it. But did that stand for Korean Air Lines, or was it Korean Airlines? I've got photos of aircraft on which both are painted. No matter, in 2003 it's a short and simple Korean Air. That is, until you read the fine print and realize the corporate parent is something called Korean Air Lines Co., Ltd. So KAL remains KAL, doing business without the "L". Got it?

-- China Airlines is the national carrier of Taiwan, Republic of China (ROC). Air China is based in Beijing, in the People's Republic of China (PRC), sworn enemy and claimant of Taiwanese sovereignty. The names are not interchangeable, and China Airlines and Air China crews are known to engage in airport brawls and run one another off taxiways.

-- Similarly, Air India and Indian Airlines are as different from one another as American and America West.

-- There is no such thing as China Air.

-- There is no such thing as British Air. British Airways is what you mean. If you can't remember, impress your travel agent by calling it "BA," as savvy fliers like to say.

-- Do not, under any circumstances, call it BOAC, as certain retirees and gray-haired diplomats are still prone to do. British Overseas Airways Corporation (to others it was Better Off As Cargo) was merged away more than 30 years ago.

-- This "Air" business is fairly notorious, applied generically and incorrectly in a host of places. Virgin Air? You'll also find it affixed to Alaska, Singapore, Thai, and even Lufthansa. The latter translates loosely into "Airline Air."

-- Nippon Air? Never heard of it. All Nippon Airways is another story.

-- Juxtaposition of the -ways and -lines suffixes is equally common and equally egregious. Northwest Airways, anyone? US Airlines?

-- Notice that's Northwest, not "Northwestern." Nuts you think, but I once knew a girl who used this all the time. It was almost forgivable had she not been from Minneapolis, which is Northwest's home city.

-- Beware of redundancies when tempted to tack on any kind of Air, Airways, or Airlines suffix, as it might already be there. SAS needs nothing of the sort, lest it become Scandinavian Airlines System Airways.

-- Avianca, Lacsa, TACA, Qantas, Tarom, and even Varig, all pronounced phonetically as they appear, belong to the acronym club with an inherent "airline," though it's hit or miss with respect to capitalization. Tarom, for instance, is an amalgam of Tranporturile Aeriene Romane.

-- There is no "u" in Qantas. It's taken care of by the Queensland part of Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services, as it was named more than 80 years ago.

-- KLM? Why that's Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij, or "Royal Dutch Airlines." But you knew that. Just don't say KLM Air.

-- Then again, sometimes an abbreviation isn't an abbreviation. ATA used to be American Trans Air. Now, instead, it's ATA Airlines. Not redundant, they tell us, because the letters no longer stand for anything. They're just... ATA. Want to spiff up your image without sacrificing recognition? Easy, invent a nonsense term. And they say marketing ain't what it used to be.

-- Down in Trinidad, we once had BWIA, or British West Indian Airways. Today it's BWIA West Indies Airways. All together now: British West Indian Airways West Indies Airways. What a sweet ring. Except they too have taken the ATA model and negated the caps.

-- When in doubt, leave it out. Emirates is Emirates. Ditto for Mexicana and several others.

-- Lufthansa is Lufthansa. Sort of. Officially it's Deutsche Lufthansa, which means, basically, "German Airlines." On the emblem of a Lufthansa captain's hat it says "DLH" which is taken from the full German name. It's also the company's ICAO identifier.

-- You cannot fly to Rome on Air Italia or Alitalian. It's Alitalia.

-- Don't put an "n" where none belongs. It's not Malaysian Airlines, it's Malaysia Airlines. And you'll fly to Spain on Iberia, not Iberian. Garudan Indonesia? How about Garuda Indonesian? Nope, it's Garuda Indonesia.

-- What's a Garuda? It's a Hindu deity. (Yes most Indonesians are Muslim, but stone-carved Garudas aplenty will stare down at you from temples on the Hindu island of Bali.)

-- All Airbuses are not created equal. Many like to think of "the Airbus" as a single model, when in fact, like the Boeing line, it's a whole family of jets from A300 through A340. No dashes. There is no A-340, only an A340.

-- Whether you call it a "Seven-Forty-Seven" or a "Seven-Four-Seven" is pretty much up to you. There's widespread preference for the former, but both are acceptable. When I phoned Boeing to ask of the rulebook opinion, the woman hung up on me.

-- As you've probably read, the Concorde is being retired. More properly, Concorde is being retired. The plane's makers have always insisted the article extraneous. In a haughty Oxford accent you might hear, "We'll be arriving via Concorde at noon." If the plane weren't so svelte and cool I'd be tempted to declare this the most pretentious bit of nonsense in the history of aviation. Thems the rules, but most of the time I go ahead and use the the.

-- The The? Does anyone remember that dreadful song "Uncertain Smile" from c. 1983? I once had the extended version on 12-inch 45.

-- Once you've figured out which airline and plane you're on, check your ticket to see how you're getting there. Be warned, direct flights are not the same as nonstop flights. Nonstops are nonstop. A direct flight, however, may stop. Direct only means there is no change of flight number or swap of aircraft. You can fly "direct" from New York to Mumbai, India, on Delta, but you'll be stopping for fuel and servicing in Paris (it used to be Frankfurt, an old Pan Am hand-me-down). The expressions are used somewhat interchangeably, but be careful. Nonstop is always direct, but direct isn't? you get the idea.

All right. So, as you can see, it's not all your fault, and even the Boston Globe deserves a break. The airlines have made this much, much harder than it needs to be.

And I'm not helping.

Speaking of names, this has been a busy week here at Ask the Pilot. Early next week, the editors will be getting their hands on that long awaited manuscript of mine -- an expanded and updated compilation of 60 or so articles from the Salon archives. If you're a regular of these pages, you already know the book will have everything: devilish wit, indulgent anecdotes, and page after page of esoteric nonsense (see above). I'll let you know when you can place those advance orders on Amazon.

What it doesn't have is a title. "Ask the Pilot" is an option I can't stand, but others seem to find it agreeable. My own favorite, "Half the Fun," (as in getting there is?), is on the verge of being shot down.

That's where you come in. If you can do so without getting smart, send along any suggestions for a good, clever title. I'd love to hear what you think of the two existing ideas, or perhaps you've got a better one. I'll forward the input to the publishers, and if you come up with a winner you'll get a free copy and an inscription.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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