News services often mess up aviation terminology. Even 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
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 The term ramp is outdated but still commonly used in North America and a few other places. Apron is the internationally accepted term for this area of the airport.
Notice that I didn’t mention tarmac?
It’s Not A Tarmac!
News media and a few government sources often use the term “tarmac.” I have seen it used to describe runways, taxiways, aprons, parking lots, and sidewalks; and it’s actually incorrect. Aviation professionals cringe when we hear the word.
The Problem: There is no official definition for “tarmac” in aviation. One news report’s use of the word may be (and often is) completely different from another. If a reporter has enough information to make the distinction, it makes sense to use terminology that precisely describes where the story takes place: Apron, Taxiway, and Runway.
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. Unfortunately, “Tarmac Delay” was coined by someone in Congress who didn’t know better. Congress used incorrect terminology, so now the FAA is stuck with it, and so are we.
There are still no locations on an airport that are officially defined as Tarmac. Remember: Apron, Taxiway, Runway, Gate.
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.
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! Terminology describing pilots can be confusing. 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 operating 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?
Have you heard other misused aviation terminology? If so, I’d love to hear it! Feel free to leave it in the comments below.