August 11, 2006

Language without meaning at the airport

No jokes from me today. Not much was really funny about early morning air travel on the first full working day after the announcement of a Code Orange (and Code Red for the North Atlantic). At 4 a.m. today I was at the Oakland International Airport in California, and five hours later I had reached Seattle, where I am now. I have a few linguistically-related observations for you from my air travel experience today. Several things about the pre-takeoff experiences moved me to wonder whether expressions of English still have their literal meaning anymore in an air travel context.

  • We were all sternly warned to be at the airport two hours before takeoff for domestic flights. No exceptions. I have a 6 a.m. takeoff. I duly slept (briefly) at a hotel near the airport and took the 4 a.m. shuttle over to the terminal. So did nearly everybody else with a similar takeoff time. We packed into that departure terminal like beef on the hoof at the start of a long cattle-drive. The lines snaked all over the terminal, the Delta line intersecting the Alaska line but facing the opposite way. But no one had even turned on the lights behind the counters. The check-in machines weren't even booted up. Not a single airline employee appeared for nearly three-quarters of an hour. By the time the first desultory attempts to get some passengers checked in began, it was getting on for 5 a.m. Why tell us "two hours before takeoff time" if they meant "about an hour" as usual?

  • Just after 5 a.m. the first desultory attempts were made to communicate with the waiting herd — about a thousand of us by now. A voice over a PA said something about reminding travelers about something. I have no idea what. It was inaudible. Why pay for a PA and a person to speak over it and not check whether the amplitude is going to be adequate to allow enough of the acoustic stream to reach the auditory processing centers of the brain? We did without the warning or welcoming or advice, whatever it was. We couldn't hear it.

  • The staff worked under red LED signs that said "POSITION CLOSED". All of them did. Even at 5:20, when I finally got checked in by one of the five or six counter staff, all twelve desks we still labeled "POSITION CLOSED". Why have LED signs with language on them if no one sets them up to say anything true?

  • I walked to the security area, which unlike the check-in area was properly set up for serious passenger flow (though it was not getting it; everyone was tied up in the chaos of the check-in area). I read all the signs as I snaked my way fairly rapidly along the xi-shaped path between the ropes. One of them said that guns had to be unloaded and declared to the airline. I looked around at my fellow passengers and wondered whether I could be sure they had all slipped the ammunition clips out of their handguns. One man travelling with his young daughter was using some Chapstick lip balm. Some nearby passengers jeered at him and told him jokingly that he wasn't going to be allowed on the plane with that, because it was clearly a gel. Was it, I wondered? Do we have a clear enough definition of terms like "liquid" and "gel" in terms of viscosity to permit decisions to be made? What about solid deodorant sticks, for example? Well, Chapstick man smiled and said he didn't dream he was going to get near the plane with such a dangerous object; and having finished doing both lips, sure enough, he tossed the tiny plastic lipstick-like tube into a waste bin. Doubtless he had also removed the bullets from his firearms.

  • We were told to present a photo ID as well as a boarding pass to the security guys before we could get near the hand-baggage X-ray machines and the body scanners. I handed over my California driver's license and my Alaska Airlines boarding pass, and the security man, his eyes continually downcast, looked at each and compared them and handed them back without raising his head. He never looked up. He never saw my face. He did not seem to understand that he was supposed to be doing something that could only be done by an entity with his mammalian binocular vision and uniquely human facial recognition capacity specifically equipped him for: he was supposed to make sure it was me handing him those documents and not some 29-year-old religious fanatic who had knocked me down behind a stairwell and grabbed them from me. Why say "photo ID" if all the guy is going to do is compare letter strings on documents? A computer program could do that, and do it better. (Incidentally, as I struggled with shoes and laptop and jacket and bag I unaccountably forgot to divest myself of my spare change, belt buckle, and watch, so I walked through the metal detector with three-quarters of a pound of metal on me, far more than a box-cutter's worth. The machine did nothing. I walked on. Am I satisfied that we are being adequately safeguarded from hijacking, as the perennially interrogative Donald Rumsfeld would say to journalists in his familiar exasperated tone? No.)

Despite everything the would-be Heathrow terrorists could do to disrupt world aviation, Alaska (which is probably my favorite domestic airline) did a fantastic job and got the crowded plane pushed back from the gate at exactly 6 a.m. as promised. We flew into the grey blanket over Seattle early, and I got my checked baggage (with precious liquids and gels therein) immediately. I hopped on a city bus that was waiting outside, and for $1.50 rode into the city and walked two blocks to the Sheraton, where I am covering the Federated Logic Conference for Language Log (we go everywhere to bring you the language news). It was 8:45 a.m. I found the registration desk, and everything was efficiently organized there. The first workshop I was registered for started at 8:55. By 8:52 I was in the elevator to the 29th floor. At 8:54 I got out, and at 8:55 a.m., to the exact second, I entered the conference room. I had made it on time! And I found that the first speaker, the eminent Patrick Blackburn, who does terrific work on applying modal logic to such domains as the description of natural language syntax and semantics, had not arrived. He lives in France. The airline problems of the previous forty hours had defeated him. For now, the terrorists had won.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at August 11, 2006 02:26 PM