Ask the pilot

Does lavatory refuse ever fall from the sky? And there can't really be an airline called Aerobanana, can there?

Published October 17, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

My Oct. 3 column on airline spellings was, if nothing else, polarizing -- enjoyed greatly by some (copy editors, academic obsessives) and ridiculed by others (normal people).

For those of you bored to tears, it could have been worse. What's the significance of the hyphen in "Druk-Air," for instance? And what about SriLankan Airlines?

I'm informed that made-up trademarks like SriLankan -- words with a midway capitalization -- are known in copy talk as "intercaps." FedEx would be another. Neither Strunk and White nor "The Elements of Editing" knows anything about this, so I'm taking the e-mailer's word for it. Now if he could just tell me what the likes of Syrianair and Swissair represent. Until then I'm calling it the "combo nocap."

One of the combo nocaps I neglected to mention, by the way, was Tunisair, another Arab airline that like Syrianair has a perfect crash record over the past 30 years.

ATA and SAS are the only airlines I can think of whose names are palindromes. None make funny words when spelled backward, and none provide any good anagrams. I dare you to try Lloyd Aero Boliviano or Petropavlovsk Kamchatsky Air.

I noticed the letters KLM are sequential in the alphabet. I was mulling this over until a friend reminded me that one of the first signs of insanity is looking for hidden meaning where there isn't any. The spelled-out letters of KLM -- Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij -- do, however, possess a strangely onomatopoeic quality, you can't deny that. It's the sound a 747 might make scraping down the runway after a belly landing. (I was going to make a wisecrack about the Tenerife crash there, but that'd be unnecessarily cruel.)

And no, the name Delta is not an acronym for Doesn't Ever Leave the Airport. It's a reference to the mouth of the Mississippi, where Delta began flying in 1929.

I also was asked why there's a Northwest and a Southwest, but not any cardinals like Eastern, Western, Northern or Southern. It wasn't always this way. Eastern, as many remember, was one of the largest airlines in the world until wrecked by Frank Lorenzo in the early 1990s. Western, meanwhile, a left-of-the Rockies fixture for decades, became part of Delta in 1987. Delta's Salt Lake City hub is a Western hand-me-down. Southern Airways fused with North Central and Hughes Airwest to form the nondirectional Republic in 1980.

Republic then merged with Northwest a few years later, which at the time was calling itself Northwest Orient. Thus, today's Northwest Airlines is, at heart, a geographically manic mixture of smaller airlines -- Northwest Orient, North Central, Southern, and Airwest. In the same vein, Delta took on not only Western, but the old Northeast Airlines too. Northeast's brightly painted "Yellowbird" 727s were a common sight around here in the early '70s. I remember watching them from my grandfather's porch in the Beachmont section of Revere, Mass.

Northwest and Southwest deserve credit for sticking with their names. There's not a whole lot "northwest" about Detroit to Beijing or Memphis to Miami, but it's a nice touch. Even more so for Delta, and in general I miss the old-style airline names that spoke to their home regions -- Piedmont, Allegheny, Mohawk and such.

Has any major airline ever taken the name of a person? Yes, the legendary Braniff, named for founders Paul and Tom. From its Texas base, the Braniff brothers' brainchild spun a network that at one point reached Paris, Hong Kong and Singapore.

For weeks I've been toying with a World's Funniest Airline Names routine, but I keep talking myself out of it. It all began with mention of Kras Air and U-Land in one of my old columns. Anyone remember Kiwi Airlines from a few years ago? Talk about brewing some bad karma. Kiwis can't fly, and the name proved apt after not too long.

I'll take it easy with this, but here are some of the most eyebrow-arching selections from the current edition of JP Fleets International...

Yeti Airlines (Nepal)
Buddha Air (Nepal)
Pluto Airlines (UAE)
Aerobanana (Mexico)
Aero-Zano (Mexico)
Aerokuzbass (Russia)
Aero Rent (Russia)
Air Plus Comet (Spain)
Lips Flugdienst (Germany)
Kroonk Airlines (Ukraine)
Trackmark (Kenya)

My favorite, Aerobanana, flies a single-engine Cessna from Isla Mujeres in Mexico.

For the most impossible collection of tongue-twisters, look no further than Russia, where the once giant -- and easy to spell -- Aeroflot was fractured into hundreds of small companies, most of them completely unpronounceable...

Adygheya Avia
Khalaktyrka Aviakompania

You thought Continental had too many syllables. And those are the short ones. The longest have been safely locked away into abbreviations and acronyms. KMPO, to pick one, is all you need to know. Try telling your travel agent you'd like to fly to Kazan-Borisoglebskoe on Kazanskoe Motorostroitel'noe Proizvodstevennoe Ob'yedinenie.

OK, that's enough.

Blame it on the book. I'd been busy finishing up the manuscript, due Oct. 7, and was compiling a list of confusing and strangely spelled aviation terms so the editors don't think I'm on drugs. One thing led to another and the list became a column. Now another one.

I still have no title, though your feedback has been helpful. Readers support "Half the Fun" over "Ask the Pilot" by a hefty margin, which pleases me. More intriguing, though, have been your many alternate suggestions. "Window Seat," "Airline Nation," and "Aviator Shades" are my favorites. Longtime readers might appreciate one person's recommendation of "The Electric Blue Toilet Fluid Acid Test."

The publishers will make the final call, as it were, but I can assure you of one thing with absolute certainty: Under no circumstances will the book be called "Wind Beneath My Wings" or "Flights of Fancy." My secret preference all along has been this: "Blow Job -- Stories of a Career Gone Nowhere," but the editors haven't been receptive.

Listening to air-ground communications over the entertainment system, I heard some airlines using code names to identify themselves. One I kept hearing was "Cactus." Is this standard or was somebody being cute?

While private aircraft use their registration numbers for radio identification, commercial flights communicate with a call sign, that is, airline name and flight number. Clearing a plane for takeoff, the control tower would address "Continental 424" or "Air France 012." In lieu of the conventional call sign, various airlines have adopted more idiosyncratic monikers, and America West's "Cactus" is a prime specimen. Aer Lingus uses the classic "Shamrock," while at China Airlines it's "Dynasty." Others aren't so self-explanatory. People presume British Airways' "Speedbird," is a reference to Concorde, but actually it's the nickname of an old corporate logo -- a small delta-winged colophon, dating back to B.A.'s predecessors. A "Springbok" is an antelope and also the handle of South African Airways.

Pan Am's "Clipper" was arguably the most famous example. Brought back to life by the recast Pan Am now operating out of New Hampshire, its use is not, you might say, politically recognized by some, and it rings with a certain tone of non-legitimacy. Others from the past are New York Air's "Apple," Air Florida's "Palm," and ValuJet's unfortunate election of "Critter." Winning plaque in the call-sign hall of shame, however, goes to my own former employer, Northeast Express Regional Airlines, which in a fit of terrible judgment chose the first letters of its names to create the hideous acronym "NERA," pronounced, I think, "near-ah." Utterance of this awful word brought grimaces to the faces of pilots and controllers alike and was changed after a few weeks, possibly by order of the FAA.

Is it true the contents of airplane toilets can be jettisoned during flight? Haven't there been reports of lavatory refuse falling on people?

Several years back I was on a train going from Kota Bharu, Malaysia, into Thailand, when I stepped into the restroom and lifted the toilet seat. I was presented with a memserizing view of gravel, dirt, and railroad ties, all passing rapidly beneath me. My pinasse trip up the Niger, which I wrote about last December, featured more or less the same thing. Those who've traveled around will know what I'm talking about, and maybe it's people like you who get these myths off and running.

No, your contributions to the airplane's plumbing, provided their composition isn't at violent odds with the blue fluid, are routed to a tank and disposed of later.

A man in Santa Cruz, Calif., won a $3,000 suit against American Airlines when two pieces of blue ice came crashing through the skylight of his boat. This was not the result of a couple of pilots prankishly reliving their Gulf War combat days. What happened is that a leak, extending to the toilet's exterior nozzle fitting, caused runoff to freeze, build, and then drop like a fluorescent icicle. Believe it or not, a 727 once suffered an engine separation after ingesting a frozen chunk of its own leaked toilet waste, inspiring the line "when the shit hits the turbofan." (I just made that up, but I'll bet you anything somebody used it in a news report at the time.)

On busy multi-leg days, "We need lav service" is something regional pilots say almost as much as "roger" when talking over the company frequency prior to landing. A truck then pulls up and drains away the contents. Driving that truck is almost as lousy a job as being a first officer, but it pays better. The man then wheels around to the back of the airport and furtively offloads the waste in a ditch behind a parking lot.

In truth I don't know where it goes. Time to start a new urban myth.

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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