Wow Air shutdown shows why “you’re screwed” is passive voice

Without warning, the Icelandic airline Wow Air has suspended all its flights while seeking additional financing. There is no better illustration of how companies use passive voice to evade blame than its message to passengers.

By writing in the passive voice, Wow Air makes it sound as if this is some unfortunate and unforeseen circumstance that just happened — like a volcano erupting — rather than a disaster they brought upon themselves.

I’ll use bold italic to show each passive voice sentence. Consider how differently this would read if we required Wow Air to take responsibility for its actions by writing in active voice.


End of Operation of WOW AIR

Information for WOW AIR passengers

WOW AIR has ceased operation. All WOW AIR flights have been cancelled.

Active voice translation: We shut down Wow Air and cancelled all flights.

Commentary: “Travel Alert” seems somehow inadequate to the situation — as does “Information for WOW AIR passengers.” These seem more appropriate for “We have a few delays due to thunderstorms” rather than “Your money is gone, you’re stuck wherever you are, and good freaking luck getting where you’re going — or getting back home.”

How will I reach my destination?

Passengers are advised to check available flights with other airlines.

Some airlines may offer flights at a reduced rate, so-called rescue fares, in light of the circumstances. Information on those airlines will be published, when it becomes available.

Active voice translation: We can’t help you, so find another airline. Some of them will take pity on you. We might publish a link or two here if we can spare a moment from pleading with our bankers.

Commentary: Wow Air takes no responsibility for what it has done to you. The answer to “How will I reach my destination” is “We dunno, that’s your problem.”

What are my rights?

Passengers whose ticket was paid with a credit card are advised to contact their credit card company to check whether a refund of the ticket cost will be issued.

Passengers who bought their ticket from a European travel agent (within the European Economic Area) as a part of a package tour (a package which includes flights and accommodation or other services) are protected by the Package Travel Directive. Those passengers are advised to contact their travel agent to arrange an alternative flight.

Passengers who may have bought travel protection, or those passengers whose credit card terms may include such protection, may be entitled to claim compensation and assistance due to delays or travel disruption. However, such compensation is often limited.

Passengers may also be entitled to compensation from WOW AIR, including in accordance with European regulation on Air Passenger Rights. In case of a bankruptcy, claims should be filed to the administrator / liquidator.

Where can I get up-to-date information?

This announcement will be published and continuously updated on the following websites:
– Icelandic Transport Authority: www.samgongustofa.is / www.icetra.is
– Keflavik Airport: www.isavia.is/en
– WOW AIR: www.wowair.com
– Posted at all relevant airports
General information about passenger rights can be found at www.icetra.is

Information to passengers .pdf

Active voice translation: Call your credit card company and see if they can get your money back. Or call your travel agent, or see if you have travel insurance. Or sue us. You can read this same message in English or Icelandic on a bunch of other sites, or read it and weep at the airport.

Commentary: This is peak evasion, starting with a 29-word sentence with three passive voice clauses, which has to be some kind of record. All these repetitions of “are advised,” and “may be entitled” are a hyper-polite way of writing the truth: Wow Air is not going to help you get your money back, and it advises you to get somebody else to try to force them. Reprehensible.

Passive voice never comforts anyone

What Wow Air has done is horrifying. I actually considered using this airline to fly to Norway on a vacation — the prices were great — but my research caused me to fear putting my family’s trip in their hands.

People believe passive voice can soften the blow; it’s just too harsh to read direct sentences like “We cancelled your flights” or “You have to call your credit card company.” But the only one it serves is the person writing this on behalf of the airline.

Once you’ve done something this awful to thousands of people, they just want to know how to escape. Your passive voice “Travel Advisory” won’t make anyone feel better, it will just ignite their anger further. Get directly to the facts and be done with it. It’s the least you can do. (And Wow Air is clearly on board with “the least we can do.”)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


  1. I can’t tell you how much I love this article. “Weasel wording” is the hallmark of corporatese. When the passive slips in, the weasels take over.

  2. Email I got from UPS yesterday, typical UPS:
    “Hi Art, your estimated delivery time has changed.
    Scheduled Delivery Date: Thursday, 03/28/2019
    Estimated Delivery Time: 03:30 PM – 07:30 PM”
    Is this passive voice, or, is it active voice where the “estimate delivery time” changed itself?

    1. This is not passive voice. If it were passive, it would read “your estimated delivery time has been changed.”

      The test is, can you add “by zombies” after the verb? In your case, “your estimated delivery time has changed by zombies” makes no sense. But “Your estimated delivery time has been changed by zombies” does.

      It’s still a passive-aggressive way to say it, though.

  3. OMG. I have (had?) a flight booked on WOW from Dublin to Boston in May. Not a word or email directly from the company. Now I’m on the phone with Capital One now to have the charges reversed. And the fraud expert has stated she’s been handling a “ton” of these calls today. Thanks Josh! Since I didn’t get word one from the damn airline, glad I subscribe to your blog. Now I just have to figure out how to get back from Europe in May (without going through Britain).

    1. I’m so sorry to hear that, Elaine. It’s awful that you had to hear about it from me rather than them! I’m glad I could let you know.

  4. Are you kidding? I’m just glad I’m a subscriber to your blog, not only for this but for all the other insight and tips!