The language you need to know if you want to impress airline employees

Jan 10, 2020

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Editor’s note: This post was originally published on Sept. 8, 2019.

Have you ever called an airline — or any company, really — in need of customer service only to flounder a bit when asked to spell out your record locator, booking code or name? “No, B, not T … B as in boy, not toy ….

Well, not anymore.

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The next time you call an airline for any reason at all, you’re going to want to have these words memorized, especially when they ask for your record locator (airline speak for confirmation code). It’s called the phonetic alphabet (sometimes, the pilot’s alphabet) and a version of this particular alphabet has been in use since the International Air Transport Association (IATA) proposed it in the 1950s for civil aviation use. Though tweaks were made — the code word for the letter N was particularly contentious — the alphabet was eventually adopted by NATO and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

Each letter of the alphabet has a code word that is unlikely to be mispronounced and should be understood by virtually any English speaker. All pilots around the world are required to know both English and the phonetic alphabet, and you’ll most likely hear it if you listen in to a conversation between a pilot and Air Traffic Control (ATC).

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It goes a little something like this:

    • A is for Alpha
    • B is for Bravo
    • C is for Charlie
    • D is for Delta
    • E is for Echo
    • F is for Foxtrot
    • G is for Golf
    • H is for Hotel
    • I is for India
    • J is for Juliet
    • K is for Kilo
    • L is for Lima
    • M is for Mike
    • N is for November
    • O is for Oscar
    • P is for Papa
    • Q is for Quebec
    • R is for Romeo
    • S is for Sierra
    • T is for Tango
    • U is for Uniform
    • V is for Victor
    • W is for Whiskey
    • X is for X-Ray
    • Y is for Yankee
    • Z is for Zulu

Yes, that’s where Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot comes from. Tina Fey would be proud. I mean, it’s pretty hard to misinterpret “foxtrot,” don’t you think?

For example, if your record locator is “ABCDEF,” you would say, “alpha, bravo, Charlie, delta, echo and foxtrot.” If your record locator is “SBRZH,” you would tell the agent on the phone it’s “sierra, bravo, Romeo, Zulu and hotel.”

Get it?

Yes, you might get some weird looks from people on the street next time you use it, but at least you’ll know you’re one step closer to being the savviest traveler you know. Plus, airline employees are guaranteed to appreciate the gesture — or, at least, the clarity.

If you’re frequently crossing time zones, you can also start using the universal “Zulu time” to avoid any pesky mishaps when discussing the hour of the day. Oh, and if you have the number nine in your record locator, that’s “niner” to you now.

Can’t get enough of these alphabet hacks? Check our ultimate travel glossary next. You’ll be using phrases like “fifth-freedom flight” and “hidden-city ticket” — the latter of which can help you get where you’re going on a cheaper, but longer, itinerary — before you can say wheels up.

Featured image courtesy of  Gilles BASSIGNAC/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

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