Getting the Lowdown on 'Scary' Airplane Jargon

Let's face it: We commercial aviators use a scary lexicon of words and phrases.

We get on the PA and tell you we're "going down," unaware of the skipped heartbeats of those who don't understand we only mean a normal descent is about to begin.

We announce we're on something called "final approach," oblivious to the apocalyptic sound of the word "final."

We tell you we'll be "on the ground in a few minutes" without reassuring you that we fully intend to achieve that grounded state in a perfectly intact airplane (versus a pile of scrap aluminum).

In flight, we warn you about worrisome things we're going to encounter up ahead called "turbulence" (English translation: bumps in the air), or we occasionally land someplace short of destination because of "fuel constraints," forgetting that the common interpretation in the passenger cabin will be that we must have forgotten to bring enough gas.

And, as if all that wasn't enough to reduce even frequent fliers to quivering Jell-O, we tell you we "expect" to arrive at our destination at a certain time, leaving you to wonder darkly why we're not sure.

And the name of the destination itself?

Nothing less worrisome than the "terminal."

Our flight attendants get in on the act, too, shaking up even deadheading pilots with the wonderfully creepy double-entendre, "We'll be landing shortly"-- without reassuring everyone that "shortly" does not mean that the airplane is going to contact the Earth short of the runway (since landing short can be distinctly hazardous to your health). And, when we try as pilots to be even more gentle in our phraseology on the PA, the efforts often backfire -- since phrases such as "slight malfunction" and "small problem" translate to "we're all going to die!" in the passengers' minds -- even though what we really mean is "slight malfunction" and "small problem."

Not Getting Lost in Translation

While we're not exactly dealing with a Tower of Babel here, when it comes to reporting aviation problems over the airwaves, trying to accurately translate fly-speak to those who don't push airplanes around the sky is akin to a theoretical physicist lecturing an art class in the flavors of quarks: It's the same language, but information transfer is going to be minimal.

Example? Let's take a wonderful concept called the "precautionary emergency landing." In fact, let's say we left from beautiful downtown Burbank, Calif., in a Boeing 737 en route to Oakland, Calif., and once in flight we're informed that pieces of what might be one of our main landing gear tires (two tires to the strut in a medium-size jet) were found back on the Burbank runway. That would mean we might have one or more flat tires when we get ready to land, and so -- after discussing it with maintenance and the dispatcher -- the pilots declare an emergency and prepare for a precautionary emergency landing.

Now, the air traffic controllers and the airline and all pilots know that the phrase "precautionary emergency" means that the chances for disaster are probably infinitesimal. But while we're not expecting any real trouble, our eternal quest for perfect safety requires us to take every precaution as if there were major danger, and that includes having the fire and emergency vehicles sitting by the end of the runway when we land.

Well-trained captains (or first officers) know how to openly and carefully explain to the passengers what's going on in plain English in such a circumstance, and any such explanation should include the fact that whether the tires are flat or not, everyone will still arrive safely. In other words, while there is a possibility that the landing could be rougher than normal, the chances of major damage to the aircraft or, God forbid, anyone being injured, are so remote as to be statistically inexpressible.

And, yes, Virginia, most airline passengers are sentient creatures who can understand clear and frank explanations without assuming the fictional panic positions spoofed in films like "Airplane."

Revving Up Perceived Danger

However, here's where the Babel effect can get out of hand. Keeping the folks aboard fully informed and thereby calm is only the first challenge, because the process of preparing for a precautionary emergency landing immediately gains the attention of radio, television and print news professionals, as it should.

In a very impressive and coordinated series of moves usually spanning the country and involving both cable news outlets and the major networks as well as local outlets, TV news helicopters are quickly dispatched to hover safely to one side of the airport and wait to bring us live pictures of the inbound aircraft. A feeling of deep anticipation on the part of the journalists transfers like a virus to the viewers as the story progresses, and the you-are-there immediacy coupled with the fact that an airliner is involved combines with the incendiary word "emergency" and causes an inevitable acceleration of perceived danger, from essentially nonexistent to the incorrect perception that the flight is "coming in on a wing and a prayer."

Imagine the closed loop of anxiety aboard a JetBlue Airbus A320 this past year as it approached Runway 24R in Los Angeles with nose gear cocked 90 degrees from normal. There was a less than one-half of 1 percent chance of disaster (if that high), but a cabin full of passengers were watching themselves on live nationwide TV approaching the airport!

To their credit, there was no panic. But it had to be a very strange experience to sit there and listen to some local reporters use phases and descriptions based on the normal English usage of the word "emergency," rather than a recognition of the far more benign event that was actually taking place.

Similarly, last week, an Alaska Airlines MD-80 had a small hole erupt in the side of the fuselage -- the result of a previously unreported dent caused by a ground handler. The resulting rapid depressurization and emergency return to the airport was videotaped by a passenger onboard and presented later on various shows such as ABC News' "Good Morning America" from the understandable human point of view that the passengers had been startled and somewhat shaken up when a jungle of oxygen masks suddenly popped out of the overhead compartments accompanied by popping ears.

What got lost in the emergency return was the reality that for many, many reasons the ultimate safety of the plane and occupants was never for a second in doubt, (something "GMA" and ABC News carefully explained).

Viewer Beware

Let's face it, aviation can be scary.

But the next time all of us in the broadcast world snap on the air with amazing pictures of an airliner making some sort of precautionary approach, don't be too spring-loaded to the "impending disaster" position.

Keep in mind that to achieve perfect safety, we have to be very intolerant of any problem, no matter how benign, but that our precaution can sometimes get mistaken for genuine peril. And keep in mind that the presence of firetrucks and news helicopters does not an impending disaster make.