What's in an airline name?

Some common spelling mistakes that even the New Yorker makes. (Gasp!) Plus: Form your own alliance

By Patrick Smith

Published May 21, 2010 3:45PM (EDT)

OK, it's been a quiet week in the world of air travel, for a change. Still waiting for info on that mysterious crash in Tripoli. In the meantime, let's have some fun.

What's this, two errors in a single issue of the New Yorker? What has the publishing world come to? Don't the fancy magazines hire fact-checkers anymore?

On Page 57 of the May 3 issue, correspondent Janet Malcolm makes reference to something called "Delta Airlines." Never heard of it. There is such a thing, however, as Delta Air Lines. That's probably what she meant.

Yes, I need to be tongue-in-cheek about this, since approximately 10 million people make this identical error every day. The wording is uncommon, and frankly asking for trouble. Even if the New Yorker prides itself on getting this sort of thing correct, it's tough to dock the magazine and I can't expect the halls of Condé Nast will be racked by hand-wringing and shame. (In the April 26 issue, by the way, theater critic Hilton Als makes the exact same mistake.)

Some would argue that Delta ought to get with the times and consolidate its moniker. Not me. I like the old-timey, three-word style. Delta's old rival Eastern also used it.

As does Swiss International Air Lines, which brings us to error No. 2. On Page 24 of that same May 3 edition, Lizzie Widdicombe speaks of a "Swiss Air." Who said what now? "Swiss Air," like "Delta Airlines," is, at least grammatically, a nonentity. The correct wording is Swiss International Air Lines, or just plain Swiss.

The writer must have been thinking of the old Swissair, which collapsed in 2002. Except there too it was Swissair, not "Swiss Air."

This "Air" business is notorious, sloppily applied to any number of companies. "British Air" is one of the more common and irritating examples. We don't say "American Air," so why should "British Air" be acceptable? Alaska Airlines, Singapore Airlines, and Thai Airways are some other regular victims.

Not to drag this column into a morass of pedantic minutiae (too late, I know), but while I'm at it, time for a review of common airline spelling mistakes. This is something I went over several years back, but it's time for a refresher since these errors remain common:

  • It's EgyptAir, with the camel cap, not "Egypt Air" or "Egyptair." And definitely not "Air Egypt."
  • It's Finnair, Icelandair, Tunisair and Ryanair, as opposed to "Finn Air," IcelandAir," "Tunisia Air," "Ryan Air" or similarly botched variants. Would Microsoft enjoy being called MicroSoft or Micro Soft?
  • China Airlines is the national carrier of Taiwan, Republic of China. Air China is based in Beijing, in the People's Republic of China, Taiwan's sworn enemy and claimant of its sovereignty. The names are not interchangeable.
  • There is no such thing as "China Air."
  • 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.
  • When in doubt, leave it out. Emirates is technically known as Emirates Airline, without the "s," but Emirates alone is sufficient; no prefix or suffix required. Ditto for Mexicana, JetBlue and several others.
  • You cannot fly to Rome on "Air Italia" or "Alitalian." It's Alitalia.
  • There is no "u" in Qantas. And, no, the name Qantas is not the name of a rare Tasmanian marsupial. It's an acronym for Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services.
  • Afriqiyah Airways, victim of last week's crash in Tripoli, is another one whose "q" flies solo.

Now there's some knowledge to impress your friends with.

Spell 'em if you can. For the most impossible collection of airline tongue twisters, look no further than Russia, home to such household names as Adygheya Avia, Avialesookhrana, Aviaobshchemash, and 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, for example, is all you need to know -- but if you insist, it's Kazanskoe Motorostroitel'noe Proizvodstevennoe Ob'yedinenie, which is also the sound a person makes when gargling aquarium gravel.

Not to be outdone, there's an airline in Kazakhstan called Zhezkazan Zhez Air. There are  five "z's" in that name. I’m not sure how to pronounce it, but a loud sneeze should be a close enough approximation.

Some of the Russian carriers ought to consider forming an alliance. It could be headquartered in one of those Siberian cities whose names are almost as confounding: Nizhnekolymsk. A bunch of airlines you can't pronounce flying to cities you can't pronounce.

The Kzychomnelolymonskykhyszuvchaero Alliance
Slogan: [unintelligible]
Frequent flier program: Consonants Club

Or how about an alliance of oft-cited airlines that don't really exist?

Ghost Team: British Air, China Air, Air Italia
Slogan: "Fly us if you can"
Frequent flier program: none

And why stop there?

The Alliance of Evil: Iran Air, Syrianair, Air Koryo, Cubana, and maybe a Venezuelan airline or two
Slogan: "You're with us or you're against us"
Frequent flier program: "BushMiles"

General Tsao's Alliance: China Airlines, Air China, China Southern, China Eastern, China Western, China Air, China China
Slogan: "Free delivery with purchase of any ticket over $99"
Frequent flier program: MSG Club

That's the best I can do from the top of my head, but there's definitely some potential here, so let's open it up to the floor and make a contest out of it. Whoever comes up with the best parody alliance wins a stylish new Ask the Pilot baseball cap.  The winner and runners-up will be published in a future installment of this column.

E-mail your entries to PatrickSmith@askthepilot.com.

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Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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