Get that Airline Record Locator Right Away. And Use the ‘Correct’ Phonetic Spelling, Darn It!

Regular readers know that I don’t proofread my posts before hitting publish. I could definitely do better here. I’m not concerned with ‘proper usage’ but I do believe the most important thing in communication is understanding. Sometimes I won’t write complete sentences, I’ll write run-on sentences, I write the way that I speak. When a typo or slipping the wrong word into a sentence gets in the way of understanding that’s actually a problem. Fortunately, I crowdsource my editing.. in the form of only sometimes friendly contributions to the comments section. Thank you all!

I realize my belief that what matters is understanding makes me a hypocrite in at least one dimension: I cannot stand non-standard words that represent letters of the alphabet.

I do realize that there are a few different versions that are ostensibly correct, it doesn’t do any good to use Delta for D in air traffic control around Atlanta. And correct shouldn’t matter to me.

I don’t believe there’s a right or wrong in writing, that the relevant question is whether or not the person writing is communicating in a way that they are understood by their intended audience. I believe grammar and spelling don’t matter for their own sake.

Yet I have an irrational emotional reaction that I just. can’t. control. with airline reservations agents who use the zulu alphabet incorrectly.

I talk to a lot of reservations agents. A lot of them. And I’m religious about getting record locators as early in the conversation as possible.

Whenever I think a record has been created, and definitely before an agent puts me on hold if they have to talk to their rate desk to price taxes on an award ticket or otherwise set up a reservation for ticketing, I ask them for the record locator — who knows what’ll happen after I get placed on hold, a call could drop and it would be a real pain to try to find an unticketed reservation on partner airlines without it.

Almost invariably, agents will spell out confirmation numbers using some variation on the zulu alphabet (“A Alpha, B Bravo, C Charlie” etc).

And almost invariably they will use the ‘wrong words’. And I can’t help but repeat back to them using different words.

Agent: Unicycle Jennifer Kevin Baker Charlie Zoo
Gary: Let me repeat the confirmation back to you, Uniform Juliet Kilo Bravo Charlie Zulu?
Agent: Yes, that’s correct.

Does this make me a jerk? I don’t really mean to be correcting them but I don’t really remember the words they attached to specific letters so I can’t really parrot those back. The ‘correct’ words as I understand them that are associated with each letter are ingrained in my brain, so I use them.

I was once given a record locator: FYZUJT

“Frank, Yellow, Zebra, Unicorn, Jellybean, Trotsky.”

Jellybean Trotsky…? Whisky Tango Foxtrot?!

So am I a hypocrite for being bothered by this, and am I a jerk for using a standard alphabet when I read back record locators?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Little hard nosed here Gary. I was a police dispatcher for 31 years… So I use a different phonetic alphabet because thats too many years of rapid fire phonetic details to change immediately. But you know what, when someone spells phonetically to me in another language, I seem to be able to figure it out with zero problem. Just like if I referred to you as adam henry, I think you could figure it out, nora paul?
    Oh, theres three words I seem to be a le to remember, no problem. Whiskey tango foxtrot?

  2. Whether you’re a jerk depends on *how* you correct them. The approach quoted above is absolutely acceptable, as you’re not actually correcting them, but merely confirming while also using the correct vocabulary.

    This really comes down to being a training issue, and apparently the airlines could care less what alphabet their agents use. And, really, why should they care? Why should anyone waste resources on that and even marginally increase ticket prices? Unless, of course, this slows down agents, and I suspect that it does, in which case it could be a worthwhile training investment.

    Anyway, I used to work on a technical helpdesk. I still have the NATO phonetic alphabet posted on my cubicle wall for those times when I need it.

  3. With 48 years as an Amateur Radio Operator, I’m pretty comfortable with the Zulu Alphabet. What kills me are folks that think Sierra starts with a “C” (or they have to think about it for a while).

    (And I’ll probably be one of the last living people that knows Morse code.)

  4. I don’t find it a big deal they use made-up / incorrect phonetic letters, except it can lead to confusion/mistakes and therefore risks (sometimes serious) inconveniences. An hour phone call to fix a mistake because of a misspoken letter is a big bummer PITA!!!!

    The whole and entire purposes of the (official) phonetic alphabet is to AVOID confusion on things such as, ohhhh I dunno, artillery and airstrikes!

    Anyway, I let them say whatever they want, then do the same as you and repeat back with the letter names I used in the military.

    However, there are several versions of the *official* phonetic alphabet over the last 60 years.
    So, the caveat to correcting is when you hear an old dog who still uses the *old* military alphabet (e.g. “Easy” company of WWII era, vs. more modern “Echo”). Respect that!

  5. T for Trotsky? Seriously? I would hope that they would use Mercader as M in that scenario. Thanks, now I will be spending my afternoon creating a new phonetic alphabet using just communist names.

  6. I think the zulu alphabet is best used when you’re speaking to someone you have reason to believe knows the zulu alphabet. But, particularly with bad connections, if a person doesn’t know the zulu alphabet, there are a few on there that might be confused — papa, lima, echo. kilo — all can be misheard. If you know the zulu alphabet, even if you mistakenly think someone said “gecco,” you know it’s “E,” because you already know that any word that sounds anything at all like gecco really is echo. But for the general English speaking public, “Elephant” is much less likely to be misunderstood. When speaking to humans that don’t know the zulu alphabet, Jellybean, for example, is perfect

    Also, the fact that you give a flying you know what is really bizarre. I mean, if your criticism was that they were choosing words that are too likely to be confused — like using “zoo” for Z — I could see that. But your criticism here is with word choice? Like the word “foxtrot” is somehow inherently less objectionable or more acceptable than “unicorn” to you? Take a deep breath. Life is too short.

  7. We all have our pet peeves. I don’t even know the correct words to use for each letter. As long as you aren’t rude then it doesn’t matter so long as everyone is on the same page with which letter is being used. I don’t care of they use alpha or apple. Just so that I know it’s an “a”

  8. Ha! I can completely sympathize. As a police officer in the military (USAF) and in the civilian world, the Zulu alphabet and the phonetic alphabet used by police and fire departments caused me many nights of good natured ribbing from my non-military co-workers on the street! Today, it cracks me up to listen as people try and come up with their own words when spelling phonetically.

  9. P for Parrot C for Chris Elliott W for Woo Hoo S for Sky Pesos and D for did I get that right? lol
    The post made me smile about how frustrating it can be with certain agents
    I never correct I just want to get the right damn locator!

  10. I would always advise against using “Delta” for D in matters concerning air travel. It would confuse many passengers who will think they’re being routed on a Delta flight. Not worth it. The last agent I talked to used the Zulu alphabet properly but inserted “David” instead of Delta. A good move, I think. Overall it’s not something to get too worked up about.

  11. There are many of us with military experience who learned the military alphabet, especially those of us who lived in the times that we could be drafted. So, it seems to me that if airlines are going to teach a phonetic alphabet, it might as well be one that many of us know.

    I do as you do, repeat back in the military alphabet. No one seems to have been offended so far, and communication is clear. No problem.

  12. @Arcanum – but GEICO and gecko…

    I’ve known the NATO alphabet from a young age and I like to practice saying it backwards.. Zulu, Yankee, X-ray… a nice mental exercise.

    What drives me crazy, is when I’ve spelled something to an agent using the alphabet, i.e. JAXBA as Juliet Alpha X-ray Bravo Alpha – and then when it’s their turn to spell something back to me and they say it as R as in Robert, E as in Edward, C as in Cat, L as in Larry, O as in Orange, C as in Cat – not only are they using the wrong words but they’re “repeating” themselves and taking a long time to do it. At least just give me Robert Edward Cat etc, short, like I gave you. Spit it out!

  13. I never use the official call letters except by accident. Why bother learning it? The important thing is clear communication; are you saying you understand B as in Baker but not B as in Boy?

    This isn’t a grammar issue. If this was important to the English language, I would have been taught it in all my years of school.

  14. @JAXBA
    Hate to tell you this, but some of us think too slow. If you recited it, I would have had to ask you to repeat that to me once or twice before I was sure I had the right code.

  15. “I do realize that there are a few different versions that are ostensibly correct, it doesn’t do any good to use Delta for D in air traffic control around Atlanta.”

    Atlanta thought of that…. check out “D as in David” when you get to the D concourse at ATL. All the other concourses use the NATO names.

  16. I once had an AA agent named Delta. She answered the phone with a rapid-fire “American-airlines-delta?”. It was pre-merger, so I was briefly scared.

  17. I crack myself up when I say G as in Garbage. But that’s honestly the first word that comes to mind for G.

  18. Res agents are taught proper phonetic alphabet…

    But in my experience taking calls, the majority of people get confused by many of them: Golf becomes George, Juliet becomes James, Kilo becomes Kentucky, Sierra becomes Sam, Tango becomes Thomas.

    Works much better.

  19. I think there are many different acceptable phonetic alphabets – years ago I had a printout at my desk with at least 4 – NYC police, US Army, British RAF , something else – I can’t remember, but I can rattle off any number of phonetics that most people will understand, and I do rotate through words – it drive my wife crazy at times as she is consistent. I think sometimes I vary depending on the accent of the person I’m talking to, maybe even subliminally…
    If you get it and in responding with your differences (corrections) they get it – then it is the same language. Like a Texan understanding a Bostonian despite their accents – it’s not you being an ass or a hypocrite, it’s just a different sound to the same language.

  20. It should be in their training to follow the industry standard – the zulu alphabet. If the agent does otherwise they are not following the procedure. Some people are confused easily while others are able to adapt to mixed of different phonetic alphabets. We are all different. Management should ensure their staff are properly trained so confusion will be avoid. That is why the phonetic alphabet was created.

    I see a huge breakdown of management of airline employees in the US. There are no supervisors (pursers) onboard the domestic routes so the FAs do as they please. In the call centers there should always be a supervisor on duty randomly monitoring calls and immediately retraining the employees who do not follow the procedures. Cost cutting measures by the US airlines in recent years have resulted in poor customer experience for everyone.

    This is just my opinion. Your opinion might be different and that’s ok. By the way I am “pro” airline employees. I think airline management should create more supervisory positions to ensure quality customer experience. The ‘by product’ will be happier employees who can move up in the organization with better pay and share their wisdom and experience with the other staff. We will all benefit.

  21. I knew the correct phonetic alphabet before I was hired by the airline. I don’t recall it being a requirement of training. I used it with the exception of D, for obvious reasons 😉

  22. After working for an airline for 31 years, no one calls Zulu, an alphabet! Zulu is a time, every flight has a Zulu time. Especially important for international flights. The NATO alphabet has been standardized for over 50 years, but considering that many applicants flunk out of res school for not memorizing airport codes, memorizing the NATO alphabet really isn’t a top priority.

  23. Hah, I’m the same way. Probably becasue I’m a pilot and I just happen to know the phonetic alphabet. In normal life I also tend to say niner instead of nine 😉

  24. 2 years in a Rez office was enough to kill my spirit forever with talking to stupid people on the phone.

    Here is only one.

    No ma’am – that is not Chicago time, it’s the central time zone!

  25. @Jana – Understood. I do add pauses when speaking in NATO, either after every letter if spelling a name, or every 3 letters if saying a record locator. I just appreciate it when I’m spoken back to the same way. I don’t need the ‘R as in’ ‘E as in’ ‘C as in’ bit!

  26. I can’t really criticise people who get annoyed by stuff like this because I have my own pet peeves – like when people say or type “I could care less” when they mean the exact opposite – it drives me nuts! We all have our little foibles 🙂

  27. A lifetime ago, worked dispatching for a police department, call to run a plate comes in, starting with “G as in Gila Monster” – this is the same guy who’d call for a license check, “Przdpelski, common spelling.”

  28. Reminds me of a time I made a reservation at a restaurant in Las Vegas. Spelled my name in Nato phonetic alphabet and when I got to the restaurant they couldn’t find my reservation. I went through the booking table list and found a reservation for a “Mr Bravo-Romeo-Yankee-Alpha-November”

  29. The phonetic alphabet was adopted because English is the universal language of aviation. You have pilots and controllers all over the world who speak god knows how many different languages. The only way to avoid confusion is with phonetic spelling using the universal phonetic alphabet. The same with res agents and customers.

  30. Some time back I invented a new phonetic alphabet. It had mostly short, quick to say words, so I thought it might become the new standard. It did not:
    A Are
    B Bee
    C Cite
    D Double-U
    E Eye
    F Five
    G Genre
    H Hoe
    I I
    J Junta
    K Knot
    L Lye
    M Me
    N Nine
    O Owe
    P Pseudonym
    Q Queue
    R Rap
    S Sea
    T Tsunami
    U Understand?
    V Vie
    W Why
    X Xylophone
    Y You
    Z Zero

  31. Gary
    I agree 100% with you – lack of training only is why agents dont use the internationally adopted zulu code. I call agents a lot too. I may not be 100% at times when i’m in a hurry but i try hard and seldom have difficulties with agents hear the letters in this formal code. But nowhere in the post did you spell out, or give the correct zulu code list. Please add.
    As for the guy who invented his own….are you kidding me!!!

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