Letter From Mumbai

An Afternoon in “Maximum City”


FLYING FROM EUROPE TO INDIA, we pass overhead Odessa, Ukraine. Odessa, they say, is home to the most beautiful women in the world. Then across the Black Sea to Azerbaijan and the gorgeous barren landscapes of Georgia. Next comes the ink-dark Caspian, and then the long desolate outback of northwestern Iran. The controllers down in Tehran are courteous and professional, their English impeccable — easier to understand than most Irish or Scottish controllers.

From there it’s directly overhead the apocalypse of Karachi, followed by a turn southbound, out across the Arabian Sea towards Mumbai.

It’s true about the smell. At ten-thousand feet or so, descending over the city, already you can make out the rank bouquet of urban India: a soupy waft that tastes of putrefaction and exhaust fumes. As if, somewhere below, the world’s largest garbage dump has been set on fire. It’s a smell that burrows into your clothes and your hair and right through the concrete bunker walls of your five-star hotel.

Twenty-four hours downtime.

The concierge hooks me up with young driver named Faiyaz — a most conscientious and law-abiding wheelman with a silver Toyota and remarkably handsome teeth. A hundred US dollars for the day, his services will cost, gas and sporadic commentary included.

It’s monsoon season, and we set out under a nervous, curdled sky. The air has a smell of rotten expectation — like a sink full of dirty dishes.

Maximum City, as Suketu Mehta dubbed it. And I never thought I’d see a metropolis with traffic worse than, say, Cairo or Bangkok. But at least the chaos of Cairo stays more or less in motion. Mumbai’s traffic never has the chance to become chaotic. Every road, highway, backstreet and boulevard exists in a permanent state of gridlock. And all of it four-wheeled and motorized. One misses the cows and three-wheel autorickshaws that jostle for space in other Indian cities. If nothing else, for the Westerner they make for a more curious view — a form of entertainment when you’re cemented into a non-moving column for 45 minutes.

The ten-mile drive to downtown takes almost two hours. Averaged out, that’s a little faster than walking. It’s a long, if morbidly engrossing trip through the city’s most frenetic northern suburbs.

Mumbai isn’t unlike most big cities, I reckon — provided you took that city, layered it under several inches of solid and semi-solid waste, then ran it through a blender. That’s a cheap and nasty description, but looking upon Mumbai is, for me, a pained gaze through layer upon layer of chaos — a noisy, smelly, kaleidoscopic battle between machinery, concrete, garbage and flesh.

From the car I catch sight of a tiny kitten, skinnier than a sparrow, moving nervously along the roadside gutter with a rat hanging limply from its fangs. The miniature, mud-spattered feline is boxed in by an endless stream of vehicles, and is simultaneously being bullied by an impetuous gang of hooded crows. A half dozen of the lead-colored birds are jabbing at the kitten with their deadly black noses.

How does this battle conclude? Who knows. Faiyaz hits the gas and we’re gone, onward to the next little nightmare.

Looking skyward, the air above, I notice, is no less a conglomeration of noise and form, swollen with sooty rain and noisily aflutter with creatures. It’s the crows who dominate, their ranks swollen by a surplus of streetside carrion. There are pigeons too; hawks; the occasional green parrot and a huge, day-flying bat with a wingspan as wide as a seagull.

Finally reaching downtown, Faiyaz navigates down a leafy street to the Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sangrahalaya — longtime residence of the country’s most beloved and well-known historical figure. I take in the history of the great scrawny Mahatma as presented through photographs, artifacts (yes, a spinning wheel), and an oddly engaging series of dollhouse-style dioramas.

It’s a self-guided tour, and I’m shadowed at each turn by a family of four, chattering away in Arabic. Their regalia, I can’t help noticing, is in the familiar jeans-and-sportscar style of the upwardly mobile Arab: The man is about 35, stocky and fit, with a pair of expensive sunglasses retracted atop his military-style haircut. He’s wearing dark navy Levis, a leather belt and cell phone holster, and a FERRARI polo shirt. His young son, around 8 or 9, is wearing a FERRARI polo and a FERRARI ball cap. Three paces behind trundles the man’s wife, covered top-to-bottom in a Gulf-style abaya. A miniature daughter in a purple skirt and a plastic princess crown clutches the woman’s hand, chirping along in tow.

Next is Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, formerly Victoria Terminus, the prickly, Gothic Revival wedding cake of a railway station and UNESCO World Heritage Site. The station has a prominent cameo in 2008’s “Slumdog Millionaire.”

And on November 26th that same year, you might recall, two men spent the better part of an hour inside Shivaji firing AK-47s and hurling grenades at commuters, killing 58 of them.

Eight of the attackers’ colleagues had meanwhile scattered elsewhere around South Mumbai and were having a similar night out, shooting and blowing things up at the Oberoi Trident Hotel, the Cama Hospital (for women and children), the Leopold Cafe, a Jewish community center, and, most infamously, at the British Empire’s most luxurious home-away-from-home, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. All together 167 people were murdered in the attacks, and nine of the ten terrorists were shot by police.

Today the reopened Taj, like many big-city hotels, is at least nominally protected by airport-style metal detectors and x-ray belts. I’m not sure what good this does. Inside, there’s no trace of the 60-hour siege that caused $40 million in damages. It’s all rich wood and rich upholstery and rich-looking men bent in hushed, important-sounding conversations. (I’d hardly turn down a night’s stay in the place, but as a tourist destination I prefer the actual Taj Mahal, several hundred miles to the north, in the pandemonium sprawl of Agra.)

Across the street from the Taj sits the Gateway of India, a 90-foot basalt archway and promenade poised at the harbor’s edge. It was here that the Mumbai gunmen had boated ashore from Pakistan, and where, after so much time in the car, I’m eager to go for a stroll.

The problem is parking.

Fiayaz suggests that we use a complimentary space offered by a carpet emporium — a place called All Asian Imports. The catch being that I’ll initially have to go into the store and pretend to be shopping, at least for a minute or two. Then I’ll be free to take my walk along the waterfront. Faiyaz will wait in the car.

This seems a reasonable, if entirely facetious plan, but as I’m pushing through the heavy glass doors I can’t help feeling conspicuous and a bit embarrassed. This just ain’t my kind of place. I’ve bought rugs in foreign countries before — the gouged-up floors of my apartment are concealed by curio-quality kilims from Morocco and Egypt — but the emporium’s nearly conjoined proximity with one of the world’s most exclusive hotels, not to mention its showroom chandelier, ample air conditioning and smartly dressed salespeople, say one thing clearly: there is nothing in here that I can afford.

I’m thinking fast in, fast out, until I’m grabbed hostage by a salesman with brightly polished shoes and a furry black monobrow. I might be an obvious impostor, in my New Balance sneakers and a sweat-stained t-shirt, but for the next half-hour I am in given a theatrical dissertation in the finer points of oriental carpet appraisal. I can’t get a word in edgewise. All escape is blocked.

Of all the things that might possibly happen in this store, my taking out a credit card and purchasing a carpet is beyond the realm of possibility. I’m afraid to let him know that, however. It would be impolite, even a touch hostile, not to feign interest.

So I nod and crinkle my forehead as Monobrow speaks. Nod and crinkle, nod and crinkle, nod and crinkle — the globally recognized expression of “yes, fascinating, tell me more,” as I slowly suffocate from the sheer boredom of it all.

Carpets are everywhere, stacked like logs. Monobrow snaps his finger and an assistant pulls a cylinder from the rack, unfurling it with a crackle. He shows me cotton-on-cotton, silk-on-cotton, then quizzes me on the differences. He rolls out a factory-made Chinese synthetic, laying it next to a sumptuous $5,000 Kashmiri example (something-on-something, with alkaline, or maybe it was non-alkiline dyes). Can I spot the differences?

Maybe. Sort of.

Next example. Then another and another and another. Soon there are several inches of rugs on the floor, slabbed atop each other like sheets of multicolored plywood. Somebody, it strikes me, has to roll them all back up again. Do I look like a wealthy customer, I’m wondering, skeptically. Or is he on to our parking scam and screwing with me, just to keep me from my promenade stroll?

At one point I bend down like a baseball catcher and pinch the fringy corners of several of the offerings, running the material briefly through my fingers in what I imagine to be the gesture a serious carpet-buyer might make.

Did I give myself away?

“Thread count!” Monobrow booms, as if an entire audience had gathered in the room, “is how a fool judges a carpet.” Is that what I was doing in my crouch, counting threads-per-centimeter?

Ditto, I’m informed, about the intricacy of the pattern (which would have been my second guess). No, a rug’s real value comes from the qualities of three and only three things: “Material, dyes, and workmanship.”

He pauses after each of these words, as if it were a quiz and I might fill in the blanks instead of just staring at him.

I cast a glance sideways, through tinted windows and out to the Gateway, where I’m supposed to be enjoying the rest of my afternoon. I curse Faiyaz, who, in case it isn’t obvious by now, has trapped me in here by design, hoping for a commission. The weather, I notice, is looking more ominous than ever.

And it dawns on me that the experience of travel, like the experience of life in general, is made up of too many scenes exactly like this one. That is, long stretches of boredom and squandered time, from which one yearns to escape, only to find his egress obstructed by an instrument of commercial tedium. Like those papyrus store “convenience stops” on the way to Giza or those places near Siem Reap with the rows and rows of buddhas. In this case it’s a long-winded lecture from a carpet merchant.

My means of escape, though, turns out to be simple enough.

“This one is extremely nice,” I say to Monobrow, pointing to whichever rug he happened to have unfurled below me at the moment. “But before we talk about price, my wife will need to see it.”

“Your wife? Of course. Where is she?”

“Across the street, at the Gateway. Let me go and find her and bring her over.”

Suddenly I’m hit by an old, old memory. The first time I ever bought a carpet in a foreign country — or maybe in any country. It was in Kusadasi, Turkey, near the ruins of Ephesus, in 1992. Kirsten, maybe, still has that little rug somewhere. This was before they lopped off all those zeroes from the Turkish lire, and I remember on my credit card statement how the numbers went right off the end of the page.

Monobrow is suspicious, I can tell, as he ought to be. But my excuse is wonderfully bulletproof. “As you wish,” he says.

“She will love the alkaline, non-alkaline cotton-silk non-Chinese dyes of this carpet.”

And with that I’m finally out of there.

As the door closes behind me I feel dirty, guilty, all eyes upon me, like a man slinking out of a whorehouse. I had no business being in there. I’m a kid from Revere, Massachusetts who went to community college. I don’t spend thousands of dollars on deluxe imported carpets, and I don’t feel comfortable in high-end boutiques that smell like jasmine and where the salesmen sip tea out of fancy china.

Again the alienation and failure of travel — the disappointment of finding yourself somewhere different, but not where you hoped to be.

The Gateway looks a lot like the Arc de Triomphe and its cousins in Washington Square and Brussels and everywhere else. Except that it’s grander and prettier, with its 16th-century Gujarat styling — at once European and Eastern, Victorian and Mughal.

There’s the crack of thunder. The sky looks like the bottom of a car, rusted and scabbed and ready to wreak havoc on everything beneath it. When the downpour comes the filthy gutters will turn to a brown, clotted stew.

I take my stroll, along past the Taj and to the back side of the Gateway, dark waves lapping at the seawall, occasional raindrops hitting me in the shoulder. I imagine the Mumbai attackers sloshing ashore here, clambering onto the street in their Adidas sneakers and cargo pants, weapons concealed in their satchels and backpacks. All the way from Pakistan they sailed. Travel of another kind.


This story originally appeared in the magazine SALON.


Comments (22)

The Noisy, Sweaty Hell of Small Planes

Flying over Cape Cod in a cramped cockpit, I wanted nothing more than to be down on the beach. Call me a heretic.

The author on a flying lesson, circa 1980.

I spent the better part of five years — from, roughly, autumn of 1985 through the late summer 1990 —  immersed in the world of general aviation, as it’s also called, slowly building time and collecting the various add-on licenses and ratings I’d need for an airline job. My logbook records almost 1,500 flight hours at the controls of various single-engine Cessnas, Beechcrafts and Pipers. No fewer than 1,100 of those hours were logged as an instructor, teaching dentists and software engineers to fly in exchange for a poverty-level salary.

When I think back to those years, my memories aren’t especially fond.  Frankly, as I see it, those are 1,500 hours — two full months aloft — that I’m never getting back.

I feel that way about a lot of things, I suppose, and don’t we all.  And it’s not that I don’t savor the thrill of flight.  Just maybe in a different way than some. I love my job and the places it takes me; I’m doing exactly what I dreamed about doing when I was a seventh grader.  But this is commercial, international flying.  There was much about general aviation flying that I did not enjoy: the miserable pay, the tiny cramped cockpits that were either scorching hot or numbingly cold, the dismal suburban airports.

That makes me a snob, or a heretic, in the eyes of many private pilots.  But that’s all right.

Summers were the worst. It would be some steaming day in July or August, and I’d be giving instruction in some tattered old 172 over the shoreline of Plum Island or Cape Cod.  I’d be up there at 2,000 feet in that claustrophobic cockpit, sweat dripping down, literally banging elbows with my student, bouncing around in the hot gusts, ears ringing, hoarse from trying to shout over the din of the unmuffled pistons.  And there, directly below, would be this gorgeous beach.  Looking at the people playing frisbee and splashing in the surf, I wanted nothing more than to be out of that blasted contraption and down there with them.  It was all I could do not to grab the controls and aim for a landing on the sand, fling open the Cessna’s flimsy door and run for the water, free at last!

Those were some depressing moments.

Ironically, I imagine that many of the people below were looking up at us, jealously.  What a beautiful day for flying, right?  How splendid it must be on a clear summer day, up there in the breeze.

What the hell did they know?  Most people who look longingly at a small plane have never been in one.  It’s hot, it’s cold, its very tight and it’s noisy as all hell. Worse even than Southwest.

For the record, I’ll note that I always was a fan of the low-wing Piper series over the high-wing Cessnas.  The cockpit of the Piper Warrior was a better design, ergonomically. The Cessna was boxy, and the position of the wing cut hazardously into one’s view.

I had a student, though, Fred Shelton, who owned a clean and well-equipped Cessna 182 that I was quite fond of.  He would let me borrow it in exchange for instruction towards his instrument rating.  N9401X was the plane’s registration.  I will always remember that number.  In fact that plane was the last private plane I ever piloted — to Nantucket one weekend in August, 1990, shortly before going off to ground school at my first airline job.  Here’s a shot of it, proud and resplendent (so much as a Cessna can be either of those things) on the apron at Hanscom Field, outside Boston.

Nantucket was my favorite destination, and I landed there in N9401X many times.  I would bring John or Ben or Graham or Samantha Simpson  — or which ever girl I was trying (and failing) to impress at the time.  But the real thrill wasn’t the flight down, it was swimming out at Nobadeer. We’d grab our stuff, lock up the plane, scale the six-foot perimeter fence, and hike to the beach.

Of course, on the other hand, it was the airplane — the privilege of flight — that made those memories possible.  One of my big laments is that people have taken the airplane out of the travel equation.  Flying, in most people’s eyes, is but an inconvenient means to an end.  That, to me, is a terrible shame.  Once upon a time, it took months in a sailing ship to reach far-away countries and cultures that today are reachable in a matter of hours.  How is that not exciting?

That is what I love about flying today (New York to Hong Kong in a 747), and, on a much smaller scale, it’s what I loved about it then (Hanscom Field to Nantucket in a four-seater).

Getting there was half the fun. Or, maybe, slightly less.


This story originally ran in the magazine Salon.

Comments (15)

A Ride on the 787

Boeing’s new jetliner is quiet, sleek, and comfortable. Now, if they could please fix the windows…


December 16, 2012

It’s the pointy end of a spiffy new jet that piques the interest of most pilots. There’s no denying that the 787 has a great-looking cockpit and some fascinating systems architecture. I can’t imagine there’s a pilot out there who wouldn’t want to fly one.

However, I figure the various aviation magazines and websites have the jet’s gizmos and plumbing well-enough covered.  (Plus, I’m protesting the glacially slow progress of cockpit ergonomics.  It’s been how many years, and we still don’t have an FMS or ACARS interface with a QWERTY keyboard?)

So, instead, here’s a critique of the 787 from a passenger’s point of view.  A few weeks ago I was fortunate to catch a ride from Boston to Tokyo-Narita on one of Japan Airlines newly delivered ships.

JAL’s BOS-NRT flights were launched last spring; the first-ever nonstop service between Boston and Asia, and the first scheduled 787 service anywhere in North America.  (United has since taken delivery of its first of several 787s, and Ethiopian Airlines will soon launch the plane on its popular route between Washington-Dulles and Addis Ababa.)

Some impressions…

First, the airport. Call me a hometown cheerleader (I grew up in the Boston area and live there still), but Boston-Logan has to be the one of the most underrated airports in the country. It wasn’t always this way, but following a decade of major renovations, including an expanded Terminal E and the construction of Delta’s Terminal A, Logan has emerged as one of the most modern and functional major airports in North America.  It’s clean, bright, easy to navigate, and who doesn’t love the inter-terminal connector walkways, with their harbor and skyline views, and inlay sea-life mosaics?

JAL’s flight 007 leaves from Terminal E.   When I was a kid, this was called the “John A. Volpe International Terminal,” named after the former Massachusetts governor.  Then, as now, it is the only terminal at the airport with customs and immigration facilities, and it is home to all of Logan’s overseas carriers. Though not exclusively: the cluster of gates at the eastern tip, once the home of Braniff and later Northwest, are today used by AirTran and Southwest.

The building has doubled in size.  The check-in hall is entirely new and arguably the airport’s handsomest spot.  The spacious, wood-panel interior is softly lit and, unlike most US airports, blissfully quiet — free of the incessant PA announcements and infernal CNN monitors that plague most of America’s terminals.  Passing the TSA checkpoint one enters the building’s older section, which is more or less as I remember it from years ago, with lots of gray aluminum and segmented windows staring towards Revere.  Flight 007 left from gate 8, at the far western end.

Somehow the JAL staff managed to begin boarding a fairly full, 13-hour flight only 25 minutes prior to departure, and actually pushed back early.  There wasn’t even a bottleneck in the jetway.  I was in 23A, a window seat in the second row of economy.

The 787 isn’t as large as other long-haul widebodies. I was a surprised by the stubbiness of the cabin.  In terms of range and capacity, the plane falls between the 767 and 777.  But it feels a lot closer to the former, albeit with 777-style overhead bins and a bevy of new accouterments.

Though it can hold up to 300 passengers, JAL uses a roomy, two-class layout, with extended legroom in economy, for a total of only 186 seats — about 20 fewer than the average 767.

The sidewalls and consoles are sculpted in that rounded, organic, vaguely futuristic style that reminds me of the caves of Turkish Cappadocia (think of Eero Saarinen’s landmark TWA terminal at JFK).  The mid-cabin lavatory is big enough to hold a party in — with cool blue moodlighting to boot.

JAL’s Recaro economy chairs have generous legroom,11-inch video screens (Ethiopian’s are 15 inches!) cup holders, coat hooks, AC power ports and a USB connection.

Despite these goodies, I wondered how many of the passengers had any idea they were riding on the world’s newest and most sophisticated jetliner.  It’s different, but it’s not that different.

If one thing gives it away, it’s the windows.  The 787’s cabin windows are a good 40 percent bigger than normal.  They’re of equal width, but almost double the height of typical windows.  These skinny ovals are perhaps the most distinctively shaped cabin windows since those of the DC-8 or the Caravelle, 45 years ago.

Instead of a traditional draw-down shade, the glass is tinted electronically, with a push-button.  It never fully opaques, and at full tint the effect is a bit like being under water: you can make out certain details, but most of the color and sunlight are filtered away.  The world is rendered in a leaden bluish-gray, similar to the way things look under a very bright full moon.

It’s a nice idea in that you always have a view.  Unfortunately, in direct sun, much of the heat still leeches through, even at maximum tint.  My window pane became painfully hot to the touch, and the radiant heat grew uncomfortable.  At one point I stuck one of the seat-pocket briefing cards into the frame to help stay cool.  When a flight attendant saw this, she came over and gave me a black, self-stick window blotter.  Apparently I’m not the only one to find this bothersome.

In addition, the tinting is not instantaneous.  When the plane banks and suddenly you’ve got the sun bearing down on you, it takes several seconds for the glass to go dark.

All Nippon Airways, the launch customer of the 787, has reportedly complained to Boeing about the heat issue and malfunctioning of the tinting mechanisms. The electronic system struck me as a novelty – technology for the sake of itself — and something that, in the end, isn’t as useful or reliable as the good old manual version.

On the brighter side, as it were, the 787’s cabin is whisper-quiet thanks to advanced insulation and an active noise reduction system.  This makes long flights less fatiguing, saves battery life on your iPod, and makes it easier to hear the movies.  It also amplifies the conversations of your neighbors and the wails of nearby children.

The pressurization and air recirculation systems, meanwhile, are designed to maintain higher humidity levels and lower cabin altitudes than are customary.  (The plane’s composite construction ensures that moisture levels won’t be corrosive.)  These are welcome changes, but after landing at Narita I’m not sure that I felt any less weary or dehydrated than I normally do after a 13-hour journey.

JAL’s onboard service was very good overall, if not quite on the level of other leading airlines from Asia, Europe, or the Middle East.  There were two hot meals and a snack service.  During the in-between hours, a buffet was set up in the mid and rear galleys with snacks and bottled water.  The lavatories were stocked with toothbrushes and other amenities.

One thing that JAL and most other foreign airlines understand better than their US counterparts, is that service is a continuous thing.  Whether it’s premium or economy class, you don’t hand out a meal and then go hide for seven hours.  JAL’s flight attendants made continuous rounds, serving beverages, collecting trash, etc.

There were two hot towel services: one after takeoff and a second one about an hour before landing.  Yes, in economy.

One complaint is that JAL’s inflight entertainment options could use an upgrade.  That big video screen is only useful if there’s something worth watching.  Delta offers a far better choice of movies and TV, even in economy.  Also, the video handset controls are inset into the armrests in such a way that your elbow digs painfully into the well.

But if you ask me, the coolest thing about JAL’s 787 isn’t on the inside, but on the outside.  I’m talking about the airline’s reintroduction of the tsurumaru, the circular red-and-white logo used since 1960.  Possibly the most elegant airline logo ever conceived, it’s a stylized depiction of the crane, lifting its wings into the circular suggestion of the Japanese rising sun.  Beginning in 2002 this ageless symbol was phased out in what had to be the most regrettable makeover in the history of airline identity, replaced by a “rising splotch” – a blood-red blob that evoked pretty much nothing at all.  It was a terrible decision on aesthetic merits alone, and still worse considering the crane’s cultural importance in Japan.  Apparently enough people complained, however, and the tsurumaru has since been resurrected.

Similar to the A380, the lines of the 787 give it a somewhat anthropomorphic profile.  But while the A380 looks like a steroidal beluga, the 787 is a sleeker species. The tail is awkwardly undersized, but those scalloped engine nacelles (for noise reduction; similar to those on the new 747-8) and sharply tapered wingtips are definitely cool.

As for the name, kudos to Boeing for sticking with the numerical sequencing that began 60 years ago with the 707.  However, I’m not especially fond of the “Dreamliner” designation.  Somehow the imagery there is a little too wobbly and ethereal.  People don’t want their planes (or their pilots) nodding off.

It could have been worse.  Initially, before Boeing had settled on a name, Dreamliner was in contention with three other possibilities.  They were: Global Cruiser, Stratoclimber, and eLiner.  Global Cruiser sounds like a yacht, or a really big SUV.  Stratoclimber sounds like an action hero, and eLiner is almost too awful to contemplate — sort of like “iPlane.”

If you haven’t caught a glimpse of the 787 yet, you will soon.  Boeing’s order book stands at more than 800.


Related Stories:




Comments (44)

How to Speak Airline: A Glossary For Travelers

Crosscheck? Ramp? Ground stop? Who comes up with these things? Finally, a code to the insufferable jargon of air travel.

THE EXPERIENCE OF AIR TRAVEL IS UNIQUE in that people subject themselves to a long string of mostly anonymous authorities. From the moment you step through the terminal doors, you’re hit with orders — stand here, take your shoes off there, put your seat belt on, do this, put away that — and a flurry of information. Most of it comes not face-to-face, but over a microphone, delivered by employees, seen and unseen, in a tautologically twisted vernacular that binges on jargon, acronyms, and confusing euphemisms.

The ways in which airline workers can bend, twist, and otherwise convolute the English language is nothing if not astonishing. For reasons unknown, it is impossible for a crew member to simply say, for instance: “I am driving my car to work.” Instead, he or she must say, “At this time, I am operating my vehicle to my location of employment.” This stylistic overkill is designed, I think, to get your attention, and to make a particular statement sound extra-important. All it actually does, though, is burden your synapses by forcing them to deal with far more words than they need to. The phrasing is often so strained and heavy-handed that you can almost hear the sentences crying out in pain.

There are people who make dozens of air journeys annually and still have only a vague understanding of many terms. To help, I’ve compiled a glossary, focusing on those expressions most easily misunderstood, or not understood at all. In no special order:



Meaning: Occasionally heard as “disarm your doors and crosscheck,” and announced by the lead flight attendant or purser as a plane approaches the gate. The intent is to verify disarming of the emergency escape slides attached to the doors. When armed, a slide will automatically deploy the instant its door is opened. Disarmed, it needs to be deployed manually. On departure the slides are armed to facilitate an emergency evacuation. (You might hear this as “doors to automatic.”) Upon docking, they’re disarmed to keep them from billowing into the boarding tunnel or onto the apron during servicing.

Crosscheck is a generic term used by pilots and flight attendants meaning that one person has verified the task of another. In the cabin, flight attendants crosscheck one another’s stations to make sure the doors are armed or disarmed as necessary.


• ALL-CALL   “Flight attendants, doors to arrival, crosscheck and all-call.”

Meaning: Often part of the arming/disarming procedure, this is a request that each flight attendant report via intercom from his or her station — a sort of flight attendant conference call.


• LAST MINUTE PAPERWORK   “We’re just finishing up some last minute paperwork and should be underway shortly…”

Meaning: Everything is buttoned up and the flight is ready for pushback. Then comes the wait for “last minute paperwork,” which winds up taking half an hour. Usually it’s something to do with the weight-and-balance record, a revision to the flight plan, or waiting for the maintenance guys to deal with a write-up and get the logbook in order.



Meaning: The cockpit.



Meaning: Second in command on the FLIGHT DECK. The first officer sits on the right and wears three stripes. He or she is fully qualified to operate the aircraft in all stages of flight, including takeoffs and landings, and does so in alternating turns with the captain.


• FLIGHT LEVEL   “We’ve now reached our cruising altitude of flight level three-three-zero. I’ll go ahead and turn off the seat belt sign…”

Meaning: There’s a technical definition of flight level, but I’m not going to bore you with it. Basically this is a fancy way of telling you how many thousands of feet you are above sea level. Just add a couple of zeroes. Flight level three-three zero is 33,000 feet.



Meaning: A racetrack-shaped course flown during weather or traffic delays. Published holding patterns are depicted on aeronautical charts, but one can be improvised almost anywhere.


GROUND STOP   “Sorry folks, but there’s a ground stop on all flights headed south from here.”

Meaning: The point when departures to one or more destination are curtailed by ATC, usually due to a traffic backlog.


• EFC TIME   “Good news, we’ve been given an EFC time of 30 minutes after the hour.”

Meaning: The expect further clearance (EFC) time, sometimes called a release time, is the point at which a crew expects to be set free from a HOLDING PATTERN or exempted from a GROUND STOP.



Meaning: Similar to the EFC TIME, except it refers to the point when a ground-stopped plane is expected to be fully airborne. The crew and ground team must be sure to get the flight boarded and pushed in order to be at or near the runway as close to this time as possible.


• AREA OF WEATHER   “Due to an area of weather over New Jersey, we’ll be turning southbound toward Philadelphia…”

Meaning: This typically means thunderstorms or a zone of heavy precipitation.



Meaning: This is merely colloquial for a transient jolt of turbulence; there is no formal meteorological definition.


• FINAL APPROACH   “Ladies and gentlemen, we are now on our final approach into Miami.”

Meaning: For pilots, an airplane is on final approach when it has reached the last, straight-in segment of the landing pattern — that is, aligned with the extended centerline of the runway, requiring no additional turns or maneuvering. Flight attendants speak of final approach on their own more general terms, in reference to the latter portion of the descent.



Meaning: Upright.

• TAMPERING WITH, DISABLING, OR DESTROYING   “Federal law prohibits tampering with, disabling, or destroying a lavatory smoke detector.”

Meaning: Tampering with.



Meaning: Off.


• FLOOR AREA “Please check the floor area for any personal items before deplaning.”

Meaning: The floor. This is a common one from the flight attendants as part of their after-landing spiel. I mean, who talks like this? When you’re at home, do you say, “I need to vacuum the floor area”? Or, “Look at that, Brendan, you’ve spilled cereal all over the floor area!”



Meaning: Deplane is used to describe the opposite of boarding an aircraft. There are those who feel the root “plane” should not be used as a verb, fearing a chain-reaction of abominable copycats. Imagine “decar” for getting out of your car, or “debed” for waking up. In fact, dictionaries date “deplane” to the 1920s, and while it’s not the slickest sounding word, it’s a term of occasional convenience. There aren’t any PA-friendly options with the same useful meaning. “Disembark” is the most elegant one, and it’s clumsy.



Meaning: A deadheading pilot or flight attendant is one repositioning as part of an on-duty assignment. This is not the same as commuting to work or engaging in personal travel.


• EQUIPMENT   “Due to an equipment change, departure for Heathrow is delayed three hours.”

Meaning: An airplane. You might also hear a pilot ask of another pilot, “What equipment are you on?” What he means is, “What kind of plane do you fly?” Yes, I agree, there is something decidedly strange about the refusal to call the focal object of the entire industry by its actual name?



Meaning: Technically, a direct flight is a routing along which the flight number does not change; it has nothing to do with whether the plane stops. This is a carryover from the days when flights between major cities routinely made intermediate stops, sometimes several of them. Most airline staff are smart enough to realize that if a passenger asks if a flight is “direct,” he or she wants to know if it stops, but check the fine print when booking.



Meaning: That’s the one that doesn’t stop.


• GATEHOUSE “If there is a passenger Patrick Smith in the gatehouse, please approach the podium?”

Meaning: An idiosyncratic way of saying the gate area or boarding lounge. Gatehouse has a folksy touch that I really like. They should use it more often.


• PRE-BOARD   “We would now like to pre-board those passengers requiring special assistance.”

Meaning: This one, on the other hand, has no charm. It means to board. Except, to board first.



Meaning: A flamboyant way of telling slow-moving passengers to get their asses in gear. It provides more urgency than just “final call” or “last call.”


• TICKETED AND CONFIRMED PASSENGERS   “We invite all ticketed and confirmed passengers to board through the gate marked five.”

Meaning: Passengers. As if, by not specifying “ticketed and confirmed,” random ticketless people might wander onto the plane.

• MARKED   “…the gate marked five.”

Meaning: As opposed to the gates that have no numbers. Of which, of course, there are none.


• IN RANGE   “The flight has called in range, and we expect to begin boarding in approximately 40 minutes.

Meaning: This is a common GATEHOUSE announcement during delays, when the plane you’re waiting to board hasn’t yet landed. Somewhere around the start of descent, the pilots will send an electronic “in range” message to let everybody know they’ll be arriving shortly. How shortly is tough to tell, as the message is sent prior to any low-altitude sequencing and assumes no inbound taxi congestion. What they’re giving you at the gate is a best-case time for boarding. As a rule of thumb, add twenty minutes.


• RAMP   “We’re sorry, your suitcase was crushed by a 747 out on the ramp.”

Meaning: Ramp refers to the aircraft and ground vehicle movement areas closest to the terminal — the aircraft parking zones and surrounds. In the early days of aviation, many aircraft were amphibious seaplanes or floatplanes. If a plane wasn’t flying, it was either in the water or it was “on the ramp.”


• ALLEY   “It’ll be just a second, folks. We’re waiting for another aircraft to move out of the alley.”

Meaning: A taxiway or passageway between terminals or RAMPS.



Meaning: Similar to RAMP, above, this is basically any expanse of TARMAC that is not a runway or taxiway — i.e. areas where planes park or are otherwise serviced.



Meaning: A portmanteau for “tar-penetration macadam,” a highway surfacing material patented in Britain in 1901. Eventually it came to mean any sort of asphalt or blacktop. You hear it in reference to airports all the time, even though almost no ramp, apron, runway or taxiway is actually surfaced with the stuff. Real tarmac becomes soft in hot weather, and would turn to mush under the wheels of a heavy jet. (I think of Paul Weller’s invocation of “sticky black tarmac” in the gorgeous Jam song “That’s Entertainment!”) Like many words, it has outgrown its specificity, and there are linguistic traditionalists who are bothered by this. I am not one of them.


• AT THIS TIME   “At this time, we ask that you please put away all electronic devices.”

Meaning: Now, or presently. This is air travel’s signature euphemism.


• DO   “We do appreciate you choosing American.” Or, “We do remind you that smoking is not permitted.”

Meaning: An emphatic, otherwise with no grammatical justification. What’s wrong with, “Thank you for choosing American” or “Smoking is not allowed”? People wonder if this is how airline employees talk to one another. “I do love you, Steve, but I cannot marry you at this time.”

Comments (5)