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.

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