It’s NOT A Tarmac! Airline Terminology

tarmacCNN, 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.

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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.

  1. 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).
  2. Taxiways are the “roads” airplanes take to get to and from the runways.
  3. IMG_4938editThe 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 The term ramp is outdated but still commonly used in North America.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?

airport diagram


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.

Actual tweets from a few of the networks…

So, what IS a tarmac?

Tarmac (short for tarmacadamis 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.

Calling a taxiway “the tarmac” is like calling it “the asphalt” or “the reinforced concrete.” It makes absolutely no sense and causes confusion.


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!

Jet bridge in Adelaide. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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.

Even in 2008 we didn’t call them “stewardess” (but apparently Fox News did)

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.

1968 United Airlines “Stewardesses” – Courtesy SDASM Archives on Flickr

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.

The Captain and First Officer.  Courtesy: Kent Wien –

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.

Trivia:  In Asia, as a show of respect, both pilots are often referred to as captain by airport employees and people outside of the aviation industry. When a flight crew walks into a hotel in Asia, they are often greeted with a friendly “Hello, captains!”

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.


  1. “Trans-oceanic flights sometimes carry extra captains or first officers to satisfy legal rest requirements.” Cross-continental also carry extra crew. Hong Kong to Europe is all over land. Also don’t forget the IRO definition. Some of our Professional IRO’s would be offended. Also some airlines use the term “cruise” pilots (2 stripes) but never get a landing in the aircraft until they get the third stripe.

  2. Ken, you use the term ‘Apron’ in your post. I think ‘Ramp’ would also be appropriate. Just a personal view point.

    • Hi, Mike! If you peek at the “Parts Of An Airport” section of the post, you’ll see that “ramp” is still common in North America, but it’s not used elsewhere. My airline calls its parking areas “ramps” as do a few others. “Tarmac,” however, just needs to quietly go away! 🙂
      Thanks for reading!

  3. Is it not the media’s job to research their facts? Why should we have to educate them, when it’s their job to misinform us? Maybe that should be a clue to turn the jokers off and every one do their OWN research when it comes to most things in this world. Oh the aviation “experts” yes they’re entertaining!

  4. So we know (a little) something about aviation, and we know how badly the media constantly butchers all stories regarding aviation. Ever wonder about the stuff they are reporting on that we don’t know so much about? They are probably butchering that stuff too and we don’t even know it. Scary to think!

    • In the days before 24hr news programming, I think the reporting was more careful and accurate. Now, they seem to just throw stuff out to the public, right or wrong.

  5. Great piece, the last one hit home for me. My dad is also a 767 captain for a cargo airline, and whenever i am introduced to a coworker of his, Captain always precedes the name, always!

  6. > The person in command of the airplane is the captain and usually sits in the left seat of the flight deck.

    I wonder if it’s maybe necessary to clarify that “in command” doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the person flying the airplane (i.e. PF)?

    • Hi Bruce. Thanks for the comment. I did mention that the captain always has the final authority and that the pilots take turns flying.

      Your comment should eliminate any remaining confusion. Thanks again!

  7. I blame Dan Rather for putting tarmac out to the general public. When a TWA flight (847?) was hijacked to Libya, Rather said over and over that “Navy diver Steven Stedham’s body was thrown to the tarmac”. He may have even been correct in that case, but the rest of the media must have thought “Hey, that sounds cool. Tarmac must be where airplanes taxi!”

    The big question is how can it be stopped? Drives me crazy. Whenever I hear someone use the word, I automatically assume the know NOTHING about aviation!

    • Hi Ken,

      Unfortunately, “Tarmac” has sort of hit critical mass. No one knows what it means, yet many seem comfortable using. It doesn’t help that the non-aviation paper pushers in US Congress incorrectly used the term “Tarmac Delay” in legislation. So now it’s a part of our law. 🙁 Oh well!

      Thanks for reading!

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