Ask the pilot

From Clickair to CrazyJet, a meditation on the troubled state of airline names.


Patrick Smith
September 14, 2007 2:45PM (UTC)

Most people know that Lufthansa is the airline of Germany. Fewer people know how to spell or pronounce it. I've seen and heard every conceivable variation, from the crudely phonetic ("Liftunza") to the inexplicable ("Lefthoonza"). It shouldn't be so difficult. Keep your vowels in order -- the "hansa" part has a short "a," and those of you who were watching MTV in 1983 can think of "Ninety-Nine Luft Balloons," and remember that the "t" and the "h" form separate sounds, unlike the diphthong of "other" or "weather." Stress the first syllable slightly, and there it is, "LUFT-hansa." You're practically speaking German.

But of all the endless manglings, perhaps the most atrocious version is one heard dozens of times daily at Boston's Logan International Airport. The offense takes place on Massport's interterminal shuttle bus, and/or aboard the MBTA's Silver Line connection from downtown, both of which share a common audio loop that announces the occupants of each terminal. As the only airline pilot alive who doesn't own an automobile, I take public transportation to and from the airport. And every time the bus nears Terminal E, I clench my teeth and close my eyes as the tape goes through its alphabetical listing. It starts out fine. "This stop serves Air France, Aer Lingus, Alitalia, British Airways, Iberia ..." But then, here it comes: "Loof-THUND-za."

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Say what?

"Loof-THUND-za," repeats the woman's voice. Not only does she screw it up, she makes a presentation out of it. Her voice drops an octave and appropriates the accent of a deranged Teutonic demon.

Being touchy about these things, I've thought about protesting to Massport. But imagine its response:

P.S.: Yes, hello, I'm calling to complain.

M.P.: Oh, is this about the toilets in Terminal C? Sorry, we're trying to ...

P.S.: No, it's about the bus. The shuttle bus.

M.P.: The bus? Did the driver swear at you? We have a special number for that, let me ...

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P.S.: No, it's the recording -- the tape recording that calls out the airlines at each terminal.

M.P.: I see. No problem. Is the volume set too loud? Is there an airline missing?

P.S.: No, it's not missing. It's just all messed up.

M.P.: Oh. Which one?

P.S.: Lufthansa.

M.P.: Lefthinsa?

P.S.: Yes. Or, well, no. Lufthansa.

M.P.: That's what I said, Lifthoonsa.

P.S.: But ... no, you didn't. This is what I'm talking about! You're not pronouncing it right, and neither is the tape. It's very confusing.

[Note to readers: Actually, it's not confusing, it's just irritating.]

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M.P.: All right, I will have our audiotape team look into this and call you back.

P.S.: Great, thank you.

[Four days later, Massport returns my call.]

M.P.: Yes, Patrick, our engineers have reviewed the recording. They could not find any problem. The voice clearly says, "Lifthonzer."

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P.S.: [Exasperated] But ... in fact, that's not what it says. It says "Loof-THUND-za."

M.P.: [Sternly] That's what I said, "Lufthownzer."

P.S.: But ... I ... That's not what you said. And either way, it's wrong. Look, it's pronounced LUFT-han-sa. OK? Can't you keep your diphthongs straight? What the hell is wrong with you people?

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M.P.: [Sigh] May I ask, sir, why it is that you care so much what the tape is saying?

And so on.

That conversation never really happened, though I suppose it could have. And I'm afraid there is no easy answer to that last question. Those of you who long ago decided that I'm a petulant crank are, once again, amply rewarded. But I am of the belief that every field, every specialty and subspecialty, no matter how esoteric, needs its obsessives, and is richer for their efforts. To the layperson, such intense adherence to detail might seem undue or comical. But without it, standards fall, and the transfer of information becomes corrupt. (From there, it's a slippery slope: The very building blocks of society begin to fissure and crumble. The terrorists have won!)

In any event, we shouldn't push it, lest Lufthansa be tempted to change its name. The only thing worse than a recorded voice announcing "Loof-THUND-za" would be one announcing "Air Germany."

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If you haven't noticed, the global expansion of commercial aviation has brought with it some truly awful carrier names. In the past year alone, more than 260 commercial operators have entered the market, the bulk of them with identities ranging from inexplicable to embarrassing. Some, apparently, were thought up by 12-year-old girls (Golden International Airlines, Butterfly Helicopters) or junior high school kids strung out on energy drinks (Maximus Air Cargo, Mega Aircompany). Others show an unsettling disregard for karma. If I told you there was a Portuguese upstart called Air Lusitania, would you believe me?

Now, before proceeding, it's true that I've riffed on airline names before, most recently in 2005 as part of a four-column series on airline identity. The topic is worth revisiting for the benefit of new readers -- and because it's fun.

Nobody will ever outdo the accidental hilarity of Taiwan's now-defunct U-Land Airlines, but particularly noxious has been the fondness for ultra-quirky, dare I say "fun," monikers. Zoom, Jazz, Clickair, Go Fly, Wizz Air. Enough already. Sure, it freshens things up, but can you really buy a ticket on something called "BMIbaby" and still feel good about yourself in the morning?

The idea, I think, is to personify the ease and affordability of modern air travel. (Snark all you want; the fact remains that flying is cheap, and more people than ever are doing it.) One result, however, has been to undercut whatever shred of dignity the experience retains. In fairness, this trend is emblematic of the way too many products, not just airline tickets, are pitched these days, with everything presented as quick, quirky, snappy and hip -- even if it's not. But as a pilot, if not as a traveler, I'm troubled by the incongruity of a $50 million jetliner that says "Zoom" on the side in cartoon letters the size of a house.

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Here are some suggestions: Zip-Air, Neato Plane, CrazyJet. Shoot, I was going to type "Superjet," but guess what? Superjet International -- you can't make this up -- a joint venture between plane makers Alenia Aeronautica of Italy and Russia's Sukhoi, plans to develop a new family of regional jets. And you thought "Airbus" was bad.

Call me old-fashioned, but I've always been partial to the more thoughtful and symbolic names -- those that evoke the imagery, history or culture of their nations. Take Garuda, for instance, the national carrier of Indonesia. Borrowed from Sanskrit, "Garuda" is the name of an eagle-like bird common to Buddhist and Hindu mythology, and one of Hinduism's animal-god trinity. In contrast, is it not wrong, even shameful, that a Nepalese upstart opted to be known as Cosmic Air? Or how about Italy's low-fare 737 operator, Air One. Huh? One what?

Of course, there are always exceptions. There really is an Air Lusitania, presumably titled in honor of the former Roman province occupying what is today modern Portugal. That's great, but as far as most people are concerned, Lusitania was the name of the British luxury liner torpedoed by a German submarine during World War I, killing 1,200 people. Air Lusitania is almost as bad as Kras Air, one of the so-called babyflots of the former Soviet Union. Kras Air is an abbreviation for Krasnoyarskie Avialinii, but that won't stop the well-earned mockery should there be a krash -- er, crash.

It should go without saying that any airline boasting a ".com" or other Internet reference deserves to be immediately grounded. Most unpalatable of these is the aforementioned Clickair, of Spain. Wait, there are actually two carriers using this device. Down in Mexico is none other than Click Mexicana, a subsidiary of Mexicana. As one of the oldest carriers in the world, you'd think Mexicana could do better. Best I can tell, the intent is to evoke the sound one makes while conveniently booking his or her ticket online. Logical, but still stupid. (Hungary's Wizz Air reminds us of a sound also, though probably not the one its founders had in mind.)

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The majority of newer airlines, though, are more conservative and happily settle for the meaningless and generic: Jet this, Air that, whatever Express. My 2007 fleets guide lists 62 companies -- I repeat, 62, both large and small -- beginning with the word "Jet." A few are creative and colorful (literally, in the case of JetBlue), though most are painfully lazy and boring. We have Jet Air, Jet Asia, Jetstar, Jet Connection. And let's not forget Jet Airways, the Indian carrier that began 777 service between Newark, N.J., and Mumbai this past summer. Jet Airways has been around since 1992, but if it's going to compete on prestigious long-haul routes (Jet's first-class sleepers indeed look superb) it ought to have rebranded itself with a bit of personality. Jet Airways? Come on.

Another common scheme is to take some boilerplate terms -- "sky," "globe," "air" and so forth -- and combine them as randomly and awkwardly as possible. Voilà, you have FlyGlobespan, a new entrant flying between the United States and Scotland. Or SkyAirWorld, hailing from Australia.

Here in America, the latest atrocity is Skybus, based out of Columbus, Ohio. Short of "Shitbox," that's about as devolved an airline name as could possibly be conceived. Airbus, at least, came into being before planes and buses were so frequently equated. Word has it that "Skybus" was picked from a long list of options because not enough people already hate flying. Meanwhile, regional conglomerate Mesa Air Group, whose huge fleet of regional jets and turboprops provides code-share service for several majors, is having success with an alter ego it formed about four years ago. Capitalizing on a certain spirit of the times, the Mesa spinoff is dubbed ... get ready now ... Freedom Airlines. Ugh.

I ran into a Freedom Airlines pilot a week ago at Kennedy airport. We were standing in line together, catching a flight to Boston. He was a captain (four stripes), but looked about 17 years old. I was trying to figure out which company he flew for, but couldn't make sense of the star-spangled logo on his I.D. badge. So I asked him.

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"I fly for Freedom," he responded.

I wasn't sure if he was answering my question or making a political statement. I wanted to put my arm on his shoulder. "We all do, son. We all do."


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


Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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