CNN, Fox News, USA Today, MSNBC, and countless other world and local news services mess up aviation terminology daily. Even the aviation “analysts” and “experts” get mixed up from time to time. As a result, the public gets confused. No worries! AeroSavvy is here to help with a crash course in aviation terminology.
Parts Of An Airport
This is pretty simple, yet the press gets confused all the time. Airplanes move about on three (and only three) surfaces on the airport.
- Runways are used by airplanes to takeoff and land. Regardless of what you hear on the news, we don’t sit for hours on runways when we’re delayed. We certainly don’t load or unload passengers on runways (unless there is something very wrong with the aircraft).
- Taxiways are the “roads” airplanes take to get to and from the runways.
- The Apron is the place where airplanes park to board passengers and refuel. The term ramp is outdated but still commonly used in North America. Apron is the internationally accepted term for this area of the airport.
Notice that I didn’t mention tarmac?
It’s Not A Tarmac!
Media folks love to say “tarmac.” Perhaps they think it sounds trendy and sophisticated. I have seen it used to describe runways, taxiways, aprons, parking lots, and sidewalks; and it’s incorrect. Aviation professionals cringe when we hear the word.
The Problem: There is no official definition for “tarmac” in aviation. The news media makes up the definition as they write their stories. One reporter’s use of the word may be (and often is) completely different from another reporter’s. If you’re in the business of clearly conveying news and information, it makes more sense to use the three airport words that precisely describe where the story takes place: Apron, Taxiway, and Runway.
Aviation is always in the news so you’d think the press would know better by now.
So, what IS a tarmac?
Tarmac (short for tarmacadam) is a road surface material patented in 1901 in the UK. It is an improvement on the surface developed in the 1820’s by John Loudon McAdam. It’s essentially crushed rock mixed with cement then sealed with tar. By today’s standards, it’s a very crude surface and could never handle a heavy aircraft. Tarmac has not been used as an airport surface material for decades.
Take a look at the above CNN story from 2007. Were the passengers “trapped on a runway“? No. Were they “stuck on the tarmac“? Nope. The jet was actually parked on the apron (CNN was correct that the passengers were miserable for 8 hours).
But wait… The FAA uses the term “Tarmac Delay” so it MUST be a thing!
Yes, “Tarmac Delay” can be found on Department of Transportation and FAA documents.
The term was coined by the US Congress. We all know how much the average congressperson knows about aviation, right?
There are no locations on an airport that are officially defined as Tarmac. Congress used incorrect terminology.
Remember: Apron, Taxiway, Runway, Gate. If you happen to be a reporter or news editor, please remove “tarmac” from your lexicon. 🙂
Time For Boarding!
You know that nifty, elevated tunnel you walk through to board the airplane? It’s called a jet bridge and it’s located on the apron at the gate.
Other common names are jet ways, gangways, aerobridges and jetties (UK). The first jet bridge was installed at the San Francisco airport back in 1959. An instant hit with passengers, the jet bridge did away with walking on the dangerous apron and climbing stairs. Be careful when you use the single-word terms Jetway and JetBridge. These are trademarked® brands of jet bridges. Stick with jet bridge (two words) and you’ll always be safe.
Uh, Stewardess? Could you get me a refill?
If you’re one of the older crowd (or the Fox News tweeter), please don’t refer to your cabin crew as stewardess, steward, stew, air hostess, babe, trolly dolly or cart tart. Those terms departed back in the 70’s.
The correct term is Flight Attendant. And you don’t need to differentiate between “male flight attendant” and “female flight attendant.” Just flight attendant – we’re all aware that both genders have careers as cabin crew members.
One more point about your cabin crew. Their primary duty is to get you safely off a burning, smoke-filled aircraft in the event of an accident. Flight attendants go through extensive emergency training and are willing to put themselves between you and a fire. Treat them with a little kindness and respect next time they toss you a bag of peanuts.
Who’s flying this thing?
The pilots are flying, of course! The news media gets really confused when talking about pilots. Terms like flight crew, pilot, captain, co-pilot, first officer, second officer, flight engineer, and navigator get bounced around a lot.
Here’s the correct terminology: The two crew members driving the airplane are pilots and make up the flight crew. Both pilots are fully qualified to fly the aircraft. The person in command of the airplane is the captain and usually sits in the left seat of the flight deck. The other pilot is the first officer (or F/O) and usually sits in the right seat.
On most air carriers world-wide, the two pilots take turns flying the aircraft. The captain, however, always has the final authority. Very long flights sometimes carry extra captains or first officers to satisfy legal rest requirements. The extra crews are sometimes referred to as International Relief Officers (IRO) or cruise pilots.
It’s confusing when the news media makes statements like: “The pilot made an emergency landing.” Which pilot? Was it the captain or first officer? Most likely it was both of them working together. The terms flight engineer, second officer, and navigator are nearly extinct. Technological advances in aircraft design and navigation have eliminated the need for these crew members on most airliners.
What have I missed?
What other aviation terminology does the media screw up? Have you heard a good one lately? If so, I’d love to hear it! Feel free to leave it in the comments below.