Customers and passengers
I was at Milton Keynes bus station the other day – yes, I do get around – and I saw the following sign: “Passengers are requested to remain on the walkway while waiting”.
My heart gave a little skip of delight. I’d thought the word passengers, used in that sense, to be extinct. It was like discovering a dodo strutting around.
Passengers was the normal word, until the 1980s, I think, for a paying traveller on public transport. Buses and railways and the London Underground all used it. And then, in line with a general drive to make people aware that they were paying for these services and deserved to get value for money, the word customers replaced it, overnight, it seemed. The change took place without any consultation, as far as I know, with the users of these services. It just seemed to be assumed that we would all prefer to be called customers, even though a lot of people did complain about it at the time, and I do not recall a single person welcoming the change.
Younger readers will only ever have been called customers on public transport services, and to them the word passengers may have rather an antique feel. But I do still much prefer it. It seems to suggest something of the romance of travel. There is an Agatha Christie novel called Passenger to Frankfurt. I don’t think Customer to Frankfurt would quite cut the mustard.
So well done, Milton Keynes bus company.