Ask the pilot

From flightless birds to the poetry of salt packets, it's the yin and yang of airline karma.

Published August 5, 2005 7:30PM (EDT)

First we thank Rui Martins, corresponding from Lisbon, who explains the apparent disorientation over at Portugal's Air Luxor. "The name is not a reference to Egypt at all," Martins says, "but to the Portuguese word 'luxo,' meaning luxury."

That's fairly sensible, though Martins also points out the similarity between "Luxor" and the Portuguese word "lixo," meaning garbage.

Next, reader Jason Langlois chimes in with a semi-plausible theory to explain the curiously named Air Atlanta, the Icelandic operator with a fleet of Boeing 747s.

"In Greek myth," he tells us, "Atlanta was an incredibly fast woman who won every race she ran. She refused to marry anyone unless he could beat her in a foot race. Milanion courted Atlanta and appealed to Aphrodite for help. He was given three golden apples. During the race, he dropped the apples to distract Atlanta. When she stopped to pick them up, he was able to win the race and marry her.

Well, maybe, but why an Icelandic airline would dip that far into Hellenic fable is difficult to fathom. [UPDATE: Except, as a multitude of readers informed me immediately, her name wasn't Atlanta, it was Atalanta, a word of unrelated etymology that means "balanced" in Greek.] If it's any lesson, the Greek flag carrier avoids this messy game altogether, going with the more purely historical Olympic Airlines. Meanwhile, purposely or not, Air Atlanta allows this debate to fester by refusing to return calls or e-mails.

My enthusiasm for "Air Valkyrie" as a more suitable option was quickly doused. The job of the mythological Valkyrie, a reader reminds us, was the transportation of dead warriors to Valhalla. Probably not the image an airline would be shooting for. (It made better sense as the nickname for a prototype supersonic bomber, the XB-70, built for the U.S. Air Force in the 1960s.)

Not that certain airlines haven't, by design, gone with incongruous names in the past. The one I liked best was Kiwi International, shared for a time by two carriers on opposite ends of the world. The first Kiwi, started in 1992 by a band of ex-Eastern pilots, operated 727s out of Newark to leisure markets in Florida, Puerto Rico and Bermuda. No strangers to failure, Kiwi's founders tempered their upstart optimism with an ironic twist, calling their airline after a bird that can't fly. Then about two years later, in New Zealand, a different Kiwi International launched services between Auckland and Australia.

The latter Kiwi was, if nothing else, more geographically correct, its flightless namesake an indigenous icon of that country, but in both cases the name had a nice ring and a clever mocking-of-fate quality. Alas, neither entity was successful for very long. You could say they asked for it.

Over in Russia, the daringly christened Kras Air continues on, having successfully dodged infamy since it commenced flying in 1993. One of the many so-called babyflots to emerge from the breakup of the Soviet megacarrier, Kras operates a mixed fleet of 40 or so Boeings, Tupolevs and Ilyushins. Officially, Kras Air is short for "Krasnoyarskie Avialinii," but that won't ward off the cackling should it suffer a tragedy.

If you haven't enough nerve to give your airline a sufficiently burlesque name, not to worry, as disgruntled employees and annoyed passengers will cook one up for you. As everybody knows, it's not Northwest, it's "Northworst." America West is better known to thousands as "America Worst," and US Airways has become "US Scareways." Air Chance, Aeroflop, and so on. Some are clever; most are dumb. Delta happens to be an acronym for "Doesn't Ever Leave the Airport," while the legendary BOAC was short for "Better on a Camel."

"Don't forget Pan American World Airways," adds Tom Bunn, retired captain from that fabled carrier and today the president of a fear-of-flying consultation service. "Or as we employees coined it, Pandemonium World Airways."

Call them what you may, airlines have a way of breeding their own bad karma, and Bunn recalls a particularly macabre example at the old TWA:

"At Trans World's terminal in New York," he remembers, "the recorded voice making the arrival and departure announcements was that of a flight attendant who'd been killed in a crash. Yet her voice carried on. Those who knew her found it eerie to hear their late friend's voice booming over the speakers as they walked through the terminal."

(A grave error, if you will, on TWA's part, but am I the only one who considers the prerecorded voice of a dead person less creepy than the existing cacophony of security announcements and warnings about the destruction of unattended luggage?)

Those catchphrases, too, have long been easy targets for ridicule. We've already discussed Northwest's ill-advised "Some People Just Know How to Fly" slogan from the mid-1990s, but plenty of others have lent themselves marvelously to a sarcastic take-down.

Consider Delta's "We Get You There," another '90s campaign. Passengers don't anticipate much from their airlines anymore, but talk about the nadir of lowered expectations. Get me there? I should bloody well hope so.

No less mockworthy was USAir's old standard, "USAir Begins With You." Or was it "USAir Begins With U"? That one always struck me as the kind of grade-school-quality slogan more fitting for a locally run retailer or insurance agency (or perhaps a chain jewelry store, where, in case you haven't heard, "Every Kiss Begins With Kay/K").

United does not begin with You, though it does begin with U, and it definitely ends with "ted," the suffix chosen to represent United's low-cost Denver-based spinoff. What is Ted? Why it's "Part of United," explains the airline's home page in a cheeky motto-cum-spelling lesson.

In the same spirit of confusion was American's old TV jingle, "We're American Airlines, doing what we do best." Presumably AA meant for us to hear "We're American Airlines, doing what we do better than anyone else does it," though an equally valid interpretation had it "We're American Airlines, doing the thing that we do better than we do anything else." In other words, we may not fly planes very well, but if you think that's bad, you should see us drive a car.

After a while, American set new lyrics to the identical music, and suddenly it became "We're American Airlines, Something Special in the Air." The same melody and (almost) the same number of syllables, coupled to a slightly more viable sentiment. Either way it stuck in our heads -- meaningless, syrupy and irritatingly catchy -- which is all any jingle writer really cares about.

For all its other, non-slogan-related problems, United covers for its mushy "Friendly Skies" bit through use of its trademark Gershwin Muzak. As regulars to this column already know, I've long been enamored of UAL's rendition of "Rhapsody in Blue," doubtless in perfect obedience to the wishes of the airline's marketers.

On the other extreme, apparently, is Lufthansa's "No Better Way to Fly" song, which the German carrier -- and United code-share partner -- is known to blare over a plane's sound system for the full duration of boarding and taxi. I haven't heard it myself, but readers attest to its awfulness. "I fantasize about a musical showdown," says Jason Gull, e-mailing from Washington. "A 'Devil Went Down to Georgia' style contest, where United's Gershwin gives a well-earned thrashing to whatever '70s-era Alan Thicke sound-alike Lufthansa hired to croon that horrible number, which is so reminiscent of the theme from 'Three's Company' that I half expect Jack and Chrissy to come pushing drink carts down the aisle."

You wouldn't expect a trendsetting European like Lufthansa to outdo United in bad taste, but there you have it. And wait, it gets stranger:

Stepping into the cabins of SAS (Scandinavian Airlines), yet another company to undergo an identity overhaul in recent years, one is prone to notice the immaculate furnishings and tasteful, understated colors. All very Scandinavian, you could say, except SAS has chosen to include a scattering of bizarrely rendered English slogans as part of its decor.

"There are three ways to travel," announces a placard near the forward boarding door. "In an armchair. In your imagination. Welcome to the third."

What's that now? Later, when your meal arrives, the cardboard lid proclaims, "A taste. A sigh. A feeling of satisfaction." Your tray includes conjoined packets of salt and pepper, upon which are blazoned all the pith and provocation a paying passenger expects -- nay, demands -- from a tiny paper envelope of seasoning.

The color of snow,
The taste of tears,
The enormity of oceans.

What better for those quiet moments at 37,000 feet than the existential musing of the Scandinavian salt poet. (They don't do this stuff at Ikea, do they?) And if you have trouble viewing it, let me transcribe that pepper packet:

"Pepper has been called 'the gift of the East,'
though 'gift' means poison in Swedish.
don't let that put you off."

Wouldn't dream of it, though I'm surprised that message hasn't triggered a few "suspicious substance" security diversions to the nearest airport.

You might be reminded of my observations from the gift shop at Tokyo's Narita airport some months ago. I still use my "Private and Official Time for Sensuous People" notebook. The weird translational malapropisms of Janglish are of course well documented, but SAS gives us an entirely new term: "Scanglish."

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Media Errata Log Update:

In a widely disseminated story about airliner fuel-tank safety, Leslie Miller of the Associated Press reports that 346 people were killed aboard TWA flight 800 in 1996.

The correct total is 230 people.

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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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