Airline pilots who hate the shutdown must be more direct

The head of the Air Line Pilots Association sent a letter to President Trump warning of the government shutdown’s impact on safety. It’s sobering, especially when you strip out the passive, military-jargon-laden language and clarify what they’re really saying.

The ALPA is a union that represents 61,000 pilots including those flying for Delta and American. Joe DePete, the union’s president, sent the letter to Trump with copies to congressional leaders.

Jargon, passive constructions, and euphemisms are typical in airline communications. (That’s why they say “Your seat cushion can be used a flotation device” instead of “Hold on tight to your seat cushion if the plane crashes on water.”) From the pilots’ perspective, the shutdown is scary as hell, since it affects plane inspections and air traffic controllers, but since many pilots are ex-military flyers, they’re used to communicating in ass-backward syntax, jargon, and passive-aggressive language.

I’d like to see the letter be more direct. It’s not terrible, but it could be better.

Analyzing the ALPA letter

In this analysis I highlight passive voice in bold, jargon in bold italic, and weasel words in italic. Commentary and translation are mine.

 January 2, 2019 
President Donald J. Trump 
The White House 
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW 
Washington, D.C. 20500 

Dear President Trump: 

On behalf of the 61,000 pilots of the Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA), I am writing to urge you to take the necessary steps to immediately end the shutdown of government agencies that is adversely affecting the safety, security and efficiency of our national airspace system. 

Commentary: A letter of this kind should start directly and summarize its main point in the opening paragraph, especially if the intended reader is busy and has a short attention span. This opener does that effectively.

Translation: President Trump, you may not have realized that the government shutdown is making commercial air travel more dangerous. Please fix this.

The nation’s airspace system is a complex transportation network that involves government and industry partnerships to function properly, and the disruptions being caused by the shutdown are threatening the safe operations of this network. The government agency partners in the Department of Transportation (DOT) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have dual roles. They are both regulators and service providers. When any of their responsibilities are placed on pause due to a shutdown there are safety, security and efficiency gaps that immediately emerge. 

Commentary: Notice also how the use of passive voice enables fails to assign responsibility for the shutdown: disruptions “are caused” and responsibilities “are placed on pause” without any indication of who’s at fault. The sentences are unnecessarily complex and there’s no need to mention abbreviations for DOT and DHS, since they’re not mentioned again in the letter.

Translation: We need support from Department of Transportation and the Department of Homeland Security to make air travel safe, secure, and efficient. When you shut down the government, air travel is less safe.

For example, at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) there are fewer safety inspectors than are needed in order to ensure the air traffic control infrastructure is performing at its peak levels of performance. There are also airline and aircraft manufacturing oversight activities that either stop or are significantly reduced. These safety and oversight inspections will potentially allow for the introduction of safety issues that put passengers and airline crews at risk. Although the 2018 holiday season is now behind us, the number of recreational drones, or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), has likely grown significantly in the past several weeks. The shutdown is a significant stumbling block in the FAA’s efforts to ensure the safety of the airspace from those drone operators who may be operating in an unsafe manner. 

Commentary: This sure sounds like a military pilot wrote it. All three elements of toxic prose are here: jargon (“unmanned aircraft systems”), passive voice (“are . . . reduced”), and weasel words (three uses of forms of “significant,” a meaningless word outside of statistics). The result attenuates the impact of what is clearly an, ahem, significant safety problem.

Translation: We’re concerned that the shutdown is making air travel less safe. We need more safety inspectors monitoring aircraft manufacturing and air traffic control systems. And the FAA needs to regulate drones more aggressively. Put these workers back on the job.

In addition to the safety oversight role, the FAA air traffic control organization is in the midst of implementing a new communications capability, called Data Communications (Data Comm). The Data Comm program has not yet reached its full implementation capability, and due to the shutdown there will be significant delays to the program. If the shutdown continues, air traffic controllers and pilots previously trained on the system will lose their proficiency due to a lack of use, and re-training will likely be required. The need to re-train will add costs and will no doubt delay the progress of this important airspace system upgrade. 

Commentary: If I were writing this letter, I’d leave this out. We know the shutdown is creating costs; this is an example. But this is not a safety issue. Including it blunts the impact of the rest of the letter.

Finally, at both the FAA and at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the air traffic controllers, airspace system maintenance personnel, and the airline passenger security workforce are being asked to work unpaid. They are dutifully providing safety of life services while facing increasingly difficult financial pressures to provide for those dependent on their paycheck. The pressure these civil servants are facing at home should not be ignored. At some point, these dedicated federal employees will encounter personal financial damages that will take a long time from which to recover, if at all. 

Commentary: This is a complicated and passive way to say something simple. Saying it simply would be far more effective.

Translation: You have asked the air traffic controllers, airspace system maintenance workers, and TSA inspectors to work without pay. They can’t do their jobs well without pay. This mistreatment of our fellow air travel workers is unfair and cruel.

Based on the impacts to the aviation industry including the ALPA membership, we urge you to take the necessary steps to immediately end the shutdown of government agencies that is affecting the safety, security and efficiency of our national airspace system. 

Translation: The shutdown is making air travel less safe. End it.

Sincerely, 

Captain Joe DePete 
President 
Air Line Pilots Association, International 

cc: The Honorable Nancy Pelosi 
The Honorable Mitch McConnell 
The Honorable Charles E. Schumer 
The Honorable Kevin McCarthy 

If you can’t write directly, get an editor

It’s clear that whoever wrote this letter is used to communicating in passive, jargon-laden, military-influenced terms. It sounds like an air force memo.

But this situation demands that not only those in government, but media and consumers understand what the ALPA is saying. And what it is saying is that air travel during the shutdown is slow, difficult, and less safe. (My family is getting on a plane soon and this scares the crap out of me.)

This letter got a lot of attention, as it should. But the author could have made his point more clearly and directly, rather than requiring the news media to translate. More importantly, a shorter and more pointed letter would carry the same message, but deliver it with more impact.

If you’re not good at writing directly like this, get an editor who can help. This letter is an important message. When you have an important message to send, it deserves more editorial attention to make a bigger impact.

4 responses to “Airline pilots who hate the shutdown must be more direct

  1. Overall I think this letter makes its point that the shutdown is making travel less safe. In most paragraphs you seem to agree with really minor changes. I would not necessarily drop the paragraph on Data Comm but rather cast it terms of safety rather than costs. I would drop the paragraph on the hardship to workers as that is well known across all of the affected agencies and does not directly speak to safety.

  2. When dealing with Trump shorter is better, since he has the attention span of a drowning flea and has to have everything summarized for him in words of one syllable anyway.

  3. I think the ALPA’s letter provides a good example of when the use of passive voice may be preferable to active voice.

    Today you wrote, “Notice also how the use of passive voice enables fails to assign responsibility for the shutdown: disruptions “are caused” and responsibilities “are placed on pause” without any indication of who’s at fault.”

    Some guidance from one of your previous posts includes “How to break the rule: For every passive-voice sentence, you need a reason. Don’t just use it out of habit. Use it when you’re making a point, or when the corresponding active-voice sentence is misleading.”

    It may be that the writer of the ALPA letter used passive voice case mainly out of habit, but I think it (inadvertently?) turned out to be a wise use.

    The ALPA wrote its letter to urge Trump to end the government shutdown. I think using active voice, e.g., “When you shut down the government, air travel is less safe.”, would have been counterproductive to its goal. I am sure Trump would’ve read your suggested version as YOU SHUT DOWN THE GOVERNMENT. This would’ve only inflamed him, the audience, by essentially accusing him of causing the shutdown, regardless of whether or not he did. And that would’ve torpedoed any chance of getting Trump to help.

  4. More than 85% of front end flight crews want the wall.
    DePete, who uses his 65,000 members number to add heft in seeking “safety,” also advises his troops to write to their congressman or woman.

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