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Being decontrolled

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I had a new experience on Sunday. My colleague Luke and I were trying to go to Dublin. We were headed there to debrief a favourite new client on a brand language project we’ve been running for the past couple of months. But it wasn’t to be. At least, not in person.

The first inkling that we might struggle occurred to me as family and friends stumbled out of an all-generations Halloween party on Saturday night. The spooky streets we’d left for the warmth of the party had become misty. The next morning, they were downright foggy.

Despite the valiant efforts of the Sussex sun, peeking through in Lewes as I headed to Gatwick, the fog lingered. By the time I detrained (bear with me) at the airport, I could barely see the runway lights.

Once through customs, I could see the legends “flight delayed” and “flight cancelled” all too clearly across the so-called Departures Board. They were nudge-nudge, wink-winking ominously. But we were fine, the Board reassured. And right on cue, 50 minutes before our projected flight time, our gate was called.

We dashed down, hoping against hope that we’d be the camel to escape through the Gatwick eye of a needle, a ship of the desert in the foggy night. And we waited for 20 minutes, at which point the gate told us it was closed. 20 minutes later, we were sent back to the lounge, picking up a client and former colleague on the way.

We then waited and waited and chittered and chattered and kept on checking the Board. Eventually we were resummoned, and were sat down in our seats on an actual aircraft about two-and-a-half hours after our take-off time. The jovial Aer Lingus captain told us we’d be on the tarmac for 90 minutes before we moved. We might take another hour-and-a-half to get airborne, if we were lucky. And with similar foggy conditions in Dublin, we might be circling the airport there for the same amount of time after the hour’s flight.

I went and talked with said Captain. I said by my estimates, we might be in our hotel beds any time between 1am and 3am. He said, “If you’re lucky!”

Just as the doors were about to close, Luke and I asked if we could get off. “What, deplane?” (there’s the jargon!) said the lady in the hi-vis jacket. “Er, if that’s what it’s called, yes!” She asked if we had any hold luggage (no); if we realised we were making an executive decision against which we’d have no financial recourse (yes); and, could we therefore jump to it, please, as the doors were about to close.

So we deplaned voluntarily. And then waited for Ms Hi-Vis, who made a few calls for us and then gave us the key to our escape. The word “decontrolled”.

“Go to the information desk in the departures hall and get them to escort you from the airport. You need to know and use and not forget this word. ‘Decontrolled’. Got it?”

We nodded and tried to commit it to memory. And then joined a 300-long queue of cancelled-flight passengers. And promptly forgot the word. By the time, an hour later, we got to the front of the queue, the Fat Decontroller sent us back to a gate, at which a further biblical queue was lined up, looking for exodus from this little bit of no-man’s land in the West Sussex countryside. We’d forgotten the word “decontrolled”, but it didn’t matter. Many were muttering it as if it were deep and meaningful. The hour-long stasis at Gate 13 sapped our will to live (#firstworldproblems) and again our memory of this nonsense word, “decontrolled”.

Eventually, a kind, kind, easyJet representative let us through, when we explained quietly and calmly that we’d “voluntarily deplaned” (she liked that) from an Aer Lingus flight, even though she was tribally barring the route to a poor Ryanair customer who was trying to get to Heathrow to fly back to the U.S.

Once past the gatekeepers who seemed to hold us back arbitrarily – they said because the immigration hall was full; it was empty when we got there – we were never asked for our boarding passes again. So what being decontrolled appears to mean is, “Be nice to ground staff, be jovial and softly spoken, chance your arm, be gently assertive, and you might just get home before midnight.”

And our clients? They were very understanding and empathetic and we made a virtue out of necessity by holding our workshop by WebEx. Not the same as in person, but much better with a decent night’s sleep.

And rest assured, we explained why we’d chosen every word. And didn’t include any gobbledygook like “deplaned”, let alone the ultimate jargon of “being decontrolled”.

Sam Knowles
Sam Knowles is Founder & MD of Insight Agents. He helps companies, brands, and third-sector organisations find simple, true, and authentic language. This gives them the tools, permission, and confidence they need to communicate effectively. His purpose is to help organisations talk like people.

Sam has recently written a book called “Narrative by Numbers: How to Tell Powerful and Purposeful Stories with Data”. It will be published in April 2018 by Routledge.