Fake It ‘Til You Make It: How to Sound Like a Seasoned Air Traveler (Even If You’re Not!)

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From experienced world travelers to those completely new at the miles and points game, we all like to sound like we know what we’re doing when speaking with airline reservations or airport agents.

In my experience, folks often get much better service and results when airline employees know they’re seasoned travelers.  If you sound like you know the ins and outs of the industry, you’re more likely to get what you want (as long as you’re polite!). :)

But how can you let agents know you’re a pro and not a complete newbie?  I enlisted the help of some airline friends to find out.

Do You Know How to Sound Like a Seasoned Air Traveler?

Pro Tip #1:  Use the ICAO Phonetic Alphabet

Link:   ICAO Phonetic Alphabet

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has assigned code words to the letters of the English language.  This is to simplify communications over radio and telephone, especially between people who speak different languages.

For example, if you’re spelling a name over the phone, the letters “B” and “P” can sound awfully similar, especially if you don’t speak English.  It can cause a lot of confusion.  You’ll hear regular folks try to clarify by saying things like “B as in Bob” or “P as in Paul.”

2014-07-09_18-54-53

Spelling Words Over the Phone Can Cause Confusion…Especially If Accents or Languages Are Different!

To keep things standardized worldwide, pilots, air traffic controllers, and airline employees (along with military and other organizations that use radio transmissions frequently) have adopted the ICAO Phonetic Alphabet when spelling out names or otherwise saying letters of the alphabet over the phone or radio.

Here’s the alphabet:

  • Alfa (or Alpha)
  • Bravo
  • Charlie
  • Delta
  • Echo
  • Foxtrot
  • Golf
  • Hotel
  • India
  • Juliet (or Juliett)
  • Kilo
  • Lima
  • Mike
  • November
  • Oscar
  • Papa
  • Quebec
  • Romeo
  • Sierra
  • Tango
  • Uniform
  • Victor
  • Whiskey
  • X-Ray
  • Yankee
  • Zulu

If you use the phonetic alphabet (for example, when spelling your name or giving your reservation number) with an airline agent, you’ll give the signal that you’ve been around aviation or the military for a while!

For example, if I were spelling my name (which gets misspelled a lot) for an agent, I’d say “D as in Delta, A as in Alpha, R as in Romeo, A as in Alpha, I as in India, U as in Uniform, S as in Sierra.” 

But I wouldn’t go out of my way to memorize these.  Even saying “A as in Apple” or “D as in Dog” shows you have more experience than the average person.

Pro Tip #2:  Talk Like an Airline Employee

If you use the same lingo that airline employees use, you’ll give off the vibe that you’re a frequent traveler.  Airline employees like folks who know their stuff and don’t need their hand held.  But use your discretion and don’t over-do this, otherwise you’ll come across as an aviation nerd! ;)

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Learn to Talk Like Folks From the Airlines…but Don’t Over-Do It!

Here are some useful words and phrases you might want to incorporate into your travel lingo:

Instead of Saying:
Say This!
AirplaneAircraft
What kind of airplane are we flying?What's the equipment?
Is the plane full?What's the load today?
What's wrong with the plane?Is it a mechanical?
Seat with extra legroomEmergency exit row or bulkhead
Here's my reservation numberHere's my PNR
Coach class / Business Class / First ClassY / J / F
When is the airplane arriving?What's the ETA?
Cockpit / pilots / stewardessesFlight deck / front-end crew / flight attendants

Pro Tip #3:  Be Professional and Polite

Air travel can be stressful at times because of schedule changes, mechanical problems, and difficult weather.   Even if you’re unhappy, you’ll get the most help and consideration from airline employees if you are professional and polite.

Here’s a thought from an airline captain friend:

Generally, if passengers are seasoned then they are calm.  They understand delays and things happen.  So they just sit and read their book or whatever.  The degree of “seasoned” is directly proportional to their calm.  That’s my observation anyway.

So even if things aren’t going your way, try to stay cool.  You’ll come across as far more professional (and be more likely to get the help you need) than the guy yelling and screaming because he’s in a middle seat or might miss his connection.

Bottom Line

Even if you’re new to air travel, there are ways to present yourself as a more experienced traveler.  By using the phonetic alphabet or speaking like an airline employee, you’ll give the impression that you’re a frequent flyer.  And airline folks like passengers who know what they’re doing!

But above all else, be calm and polite!

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14 Responses to Fake It ‘Til You Make It: How to Sound Like a Seasoned Air Traveler (Even If You’re Not!)

  1. I was amused the other day during an American Airlines flight to hear a list of connecting gates at DFW. The flight attendant was using the phonetic alphabet, except “D” stands for “David” in their variation. I think “Delta” is probably a dirty word aboard AA flights, and, in any case, some half attentive passenger might actually think they were being rebooked onto a Delta flight or going to a Delta gate or something.

  2. I am familiar with the phonetic alphabet you listed with one regional exception: I’ve always heard G as in Gulf rather than Golf. Accents, I suppose. :)

  3. Even at ATL where Delta remains supreme, the voice on the plane train says “D as in David” ! Maybe because that’s the concourse everyone but Delta uses!

  4. This is such a great list! I’m an “airline brat” and my mother definitely taught me to use the phonetic alphabet and all the above vocabulary. :)

  5. I DO work for AA. I use Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Domino when reading the gate information. I tried saying Delta, but too many paxs kept asking me if I changed their flight to Delta Airlines so I gave up and started using Domino- so if you here the #1 f/a say Domino, it may be me. :)

  6. I love this and have one tip to add: You’re not flying to Chicago, you’re flying to ORD or MDW. I’ve found calling airports by their three letter call sign instead of the city is one more small way to differentiate yourself as someone who has been on “aircraft” a few times. =)

  7. To add to your trivia collection, the “correct” pronunciation for Quebec is kay BEC (some prefer the first syllable to sound like kuh or kah or keh, but not kweh). Unfortunately, this “correct” pronunciation may tend to confuse American listeners, and the point of using the phonetic alphabet is to avoid confusion.

    I find that most airline telephone reps are trained in the phonetic alphabet, so you can give a AAdvantage record locator UVWXYZ as “uniform victor whisky x-ray yankee zulu” and they will get it perfectly without repeats.

  8. I am a fairly seasoned traveler so maybe I’m not likely to feel awkward anyway, but haven’t most people at one point called a customer service person and had to do this to clarify pronunciation for things? Be polite this rule will never fail you. Also, if you are lost or confused, ask for help. Why be ashamed?

  9. farnorthtrader

    Actually I have found the exact opposite of you. I find I get the most help if I profess my novice status and ask for the other person’s expert help, even if I have a pretty good idea what I am doing. It never hurts to stroke someone’s ego.

  10. “Flight deck / front-end crew / flight attendants”

    Really? Since Gerge Carlin’s classic on airline announcement can anyone still utter these words without a grin, at least?

  11. Barbara Pendergrast

    Darius…I agree with all the above……quick story as an example of how courtesy and calmness can benefit your travel..
    We were sitting second row, behind bulkhead, in coach , on AA awaiting takeoff in Rome. The passenger in bulkhead noticed a few empty seats in first class. Suddenly, he started dogging the attendant, saying he had a bad knee, and could not sit in bulkhead. He followed the attendant up and down the aisle as other passengers were boarding, pleading his case that bulkhead was not suitable. The flight attendant was being polite to the “gentleman”, but was obviously becoming annoyed. He approached us, and asked if we minded moving to other seats. We said ,of course, we didn’t mind….assuming we would sit in bulkhead, which was fine for us. But no….the attendant put us in first class…but the a-hole in our seats, and put another couple in bulkhead. We enjoyed our lobster and filet dinner, champagne….and laughed all the way home!

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  14. Awesome list!

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