Bill Torpy at Large: Delta ‘challenges’ passengers. Seriously?

As thousands of Delta passengers queued up in airports worldwide, the airline’s CEO Ed Bastian stood in front of a camera to record a video aimed at his tired, angry masses.

“I apologize for the challenges this has created for you with your travel experience,” said the exec, gazing into the lens with a look of corporate earnestness.

Challenges?!? I’m sure those stuck at the airport day after day, who paid unexpected hotel bills, who missed family events, business meetings, funerals or vacations might think of something stronger.

A more correct, or honest, term might have been problem. Or predicament, hardship or plight. There’s also misery, mess or distress. He later did concede “inconvenience,” which is akin to having to open a garage door manually.

I’m not accusing the CEO of malicious intentions. He probably used the term “challenge” out of habit. Business leaders just don’t like uttering anything that reeks of negativity. “Challenge” conjures up a more positive situation, something to be solved by gumption and a can-do attitude. When I think of a challenge I see a rock climber, rope in hand, scrutinizing a vertical granite slab he’s ready to ascend. I don’t think of travelers sleeping in terminals.

Delta, like any well-oiled colossus, is peppered with well-compensated individuals likely to embrace corporatespeak, jargon with words that soft-peddle or obfuscate what is really happening.

In recent years, the airline has rolled out “enhancements” in its Skymiles program. I’ll let Zach Honig, editor of, explain what that means: “Typically, the most recent enhancements with the airlines means it’s more difficult to earn miles and more difficult to redeem them.”

Who is getting enhanced is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose.

And not meaning to pick on Delta, but when the airline this year laid off 120 workers in Cincinnati and cut the hours of another 185, an exec called it a “rightsizing,” which is possibly the most obnoxious term in corporatedom.

“Rightsizing” caught on in the 1990s. In the old days, workers were fired, terminated or even axed — which all seem dreadful. Later on, such unfortunates were laid off, which still was bad but sounded kinder and gentler. “Downsizing” caught on, but someone realized rightsizing sounded better because the term “down” never sounds good connected with business.

Words are a fig leaf.

“Usually, when there’s a layoff, management screwed up,” said Geoffrey James, author of “Business Without the Bullsh*t” and a blogger for “They hired too many employees, bought a company the wrong way, borrowed too much. So then they try to describe desperation as strategy.”

This is not to say the business world owns terms like rightsizing. Last month, Albany State University’s president used it to describe the dozens of employees who had to carry out their personal belongings in cardboard boxes as his institution merges with Darton State College.

Much of corporatespeak is buzzwords that catch on when someone says something unique or even profound, said Paul Pendergrass, a former Coke exec who is now a communications adviser and author of the humorous blog

For instance, Pendergrass said, someone came up with the phrase “take a granular look,” meaning to focus in closely on a matter. Soon, everyone starts using it.

“But then jargon hits a tipping point when people start making fun of it,” he said.

Next thing you know, the term is as old hat as “paradigm,” or “synergy” or even “outside the box.”

Pendergrass pointed out there is a delineation between weasel words, which are purposely ambiguous, and jargon, which is tribal.

His least favorite weasel term? “At this time.”

For example, “At this time, we do not foresee layoffs.”

Translation: “HR hasn’t delivered the list to my office yet.”

At this time, Geoffrey James said his most despised buzzword is to “reach out.” The term, he said, should be limited to describing babies in cribs.

Some of my faves?

Assets — I’ve heard some people refer to employees this.

Laser focus — Sort of like granular, just dumber.

Becoming “nimble” – The staff will be smaller, paid less and work harder.

Skill set — What’s wrong with “skills”? Or abilities?

Drill down — Not without Novocaine.

Change agent — How anyone calls himself this without getting smacked is beyond me.

Thought leader — I confess, as a lifelong thought follower, I’m intimidated by these types.

Win win — No, no.

Stakeholders — Stop using this unless referring to someone with a pole in his hand.

Leverage — Not unless you’re using a hydraulic jack.

Robust – Please, Mr. Mayor, mix it up a bit! (Robust authorization, robust agenda, robust public discussion, robust employee evaluations, robust investigation … etc.)

Sustainability – Especially obnoxious when uttered by a Prius owner.

Anything 2-point-oh!

Dialogue – How bout just talkin’?

At the end of the day, that’s all I got.

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