Passenger Aviation Glossary (knowing the lingo).
This glossary will help you navigate through some of the aviation jargon that stumps many.
Please remember … this list is for the passenger in 22B that flies once a year. It is NOT for the fully informed, “on top of it all” pilot. For that pilot, there is no such list. :)
Affirmative: An aviator’s yes. “Negative” is no. “Roger” is message understood or message received and “Wilco” means will comply.
AIF (Airport Improvement Fees): Supposed to be used solely for the betterment of the airport. But it sure is a bone of contention with most passengers.
Air Crew or flight crew. Crew is also referred to as cabin crew or flight deck crew. Each airline has their own take on this which is why it gets confusing.
Air pocket: A colloquial term coined for an area of turbulence. “Pockets” in the atmosphere do not exist per se, but the term is frequently used with air traffic control, pilots and passengers.
Altimeter: Instrument that indicates altitude of an aircraft usually above sea level. There is also a radio altimeter that measures height above ground at low levels on approach.
Anti-ice fluid: Fluid that prevents ice and snow accretion and designed to shear away during the takeoff roll. It tends to be bright neon green at most airports.
APU (Auxiliary Power Unit): Literally a small jet engine fixed in the tail of the aircraft capable of supplying air conditioning and electricity on the ground. It can also supply electricity during flight. It’s that hissing sound you hear when boarding or disembarking. And yes, it shares the same name of the character seen in the Simpson’s sitcom.
Area of weather: This denotes an area of inclement weather or area of concern. It may be thunderstorms, heavy showers, an area of confirmed or forecast turbulence i.e. fasten your seat belt. As in, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are approaching an area of weather. Please return to your seats and fasten your seatbelts.” If it escalates or is thought to be in the moderate or heavier range, the captain will have the flight attendants secure the cabin and “strap in” as well.
“Arm and cross check” or “doors to arrival and cross check:” The lead flight attendant will make a cabin announcement to remind the other flight attendants to either confirm the doors are armed during pushback or disarmed (deactivate the chutes) approaching the gate.
ASL (Above Sea Level): Also, known as MSL (Mean Sea Level). Altitude of any object relative to the average sea level datum.
ATC (Air Traffic Control): This covers the entire infrastructure, not just the guy in the tower as depicted by Hollywood handling everything from Tom Cruise’s “low and overs” to assigning holding patterns to aircraft 100 miles upwind. There are control centers, ground controllers, ramp (apron) controllers and clearance delivery controllers. Pilots will make cabin announcements using the acronym ATC assuming passengers know the lingo.
Autoland: Most airliners have autoland capability whereby the aircraft lands itself. It is generally used in low visibilities. In fact, it must be used in very low visibility. The airplane, pilot and landing runway must all be certified to conduct an autoland. There are no auto-takeoffs.
Belly: The bottom of the airplane where your luggage is stored. Animals are stored in the belly as well, but tend to be in the aft section and sometimes you will hear their concerns.
“Bottle to throttle:” A term used to depict the hours a pilot must abstain from drinking to be legal to fly. Generally, it’s “12 hours from bottle to throttle.”
Bulkhead. A dividing wall or curtain to separate sections or classes in an aircraft. Some like the extra legroom a bulkhead usually entails, but the cons are: no under seat stowage, tray table is in the armrest, and on long haul flights, it’s where the bassinets are hung for babies. Don’t be putting your feet on the bulkhead because flight attendants will curtly ask, “do you do that at home?” It’s not classy especially when people take off their socks.
Bumped: This means that the number of seats on the flight have been oversold. Sometimes a passenger may be lucky and get “bumped” up to business class but it usually means you will be put on the next available flight. Checking in early avoids this situation. Some may volunteer to be bumped and the rewards are high and even negotiated.
Cabin crew: Flight attendants designated as the operating flight attendants.
Captain, first officer, cruise pilot and relief pilot: The captain is the commander (supreme being) with four stripes on their epaulets and tunic sleeves with a bit more embroidery on their hats. Media incorrectly denotes the captain as the “pilot.” The first officer is second in command with three stripes, but many reference the passé term, co-pilot. The cruise pilot replaces the captain or first officer for crew rest reasons and does not land or take off. The augment pilot is usually a qualified first officer and flies when four pilots are required in long haul flights. Many airlines designate some flight attendants with stripes, maybe one or two, and even maintenance personnel is getting striped shoulders.
“Cargo doors are closed up:” This is a good sign indicating push back from the gate is imminent. There are light indicators in the flight deck telling the pilots of the status of the cargo doors. Something we watch closely as departure time nears.
Chop: Rhythmic or more consistent intensity and frequency of turbulence. Equivalent to riding a bicycle on a cobble stone road or riding on the subway or train. Chop is lessor of concern than turbulence. It is referenced by pilots about 70% to 80% of the time. It has either light or moderate intensity. There is no severe chop.
Clear, few, scattered, broken, and overcast: How cloud amounts are depicted using the fraction of 1/8s (oktas). Clear (0/8), few (1/8 to 2/8), scattered (3/8 to 4/8), broken (5/8 to 7/8) and overcast (8/8). And don’t worry, “broken cloud” is not a dangerous entity like one of my passengers thought.
Cockpit: Now becoming more and more politically incorrect. See Flight Deck.
Commuter: Many airline employees do not live in the domicile they work. About 30% to 50% of pilots commute. Less so for flight attendants. You will see them nestling next to you on a flight either dressed in uniform or travelling incognito.
Cons (abbreviation for contingents and not an abbreviation for convicts): A contingent passenger is likely an airline employee travelling on a standby, non-revenue ticket. The “contingent” term refers to the passenger’s status as being contingent if all revenue and senior standby ticket holders have been accommodated. “Stand-bye” is also used.
Contrails (COTRA) Condensation or vapor trails: No NOT chemtrails! Moisture from the engine exhaust freeze causing ice laden trails. If they disperse very quickly the air is dry, if they take tens of minutes to disperse it indicates moisture aloft thus weather maybe nearby.
Crash pads: What pilots and flight attendants call their temporary sleeping arrangements (their home away from home) when they commute. Prices vary depending on how many reside in these “unique abodes” with many outfitted with bunk beds. There certainly are different star ratings when it comes to crash pads.
Crew member: Person assigned to duty in an aircraft.
Cross bleed engine start: Most airliners use compressed air from the APU (Auxiliary Power Unit) to start the engines. If the APU is not working then a cross bleed engine start means an engine is started at the gate using portable external air and then the second engine is started from cross bleeding air. It ups the pilot’s load factor and is not what they want to see when showing up for work. The Dreamliner I fly uses batteries to start the engines and we can start both at the same time.
Crosswinds: Takeoffs and landings are generally performed into the wind for maximum performance. But wind frequently blows across the runway demanding crosswind landing and takeoff techniques.
CVR/FDR/Black Box: These terms frequently make the news. CVR (Cockpit Voice Recorder), FDR (Flight Data Recorder) and the infamous black box (which isn’t black but bright orange or red) is either the CVR or DFR.
Deadhead: Either a pilot or flight attendant repositioning to another airport as part of their duty. Crew may either deadhead in their uniform or in “civies.”
Deicing: Removal of ice, snow, and frost accumulation on an aircraft’s surface. It’s the law to have these contaminants removed before takeoff. There are a few exceptions.
Direct flight: Please don’t get this confused with non-stop flight. It often is. Direct flight means you are heading in the same basic direction but it MAY mean one or several stops along the way. Think possible “milk run.”
Domestic flights: It generally means flights within the same country, however, when a pilot says they are a “domestic” pilot it may mean they fly within North America i.e. they don’t fly internationally. There are domestic airports and international airports.
“Doors to arrival and cross check.” (I repeated this one) Another cabin announcement made by the “boss” flight attendant to their peers to confirm the doors are disarmed. Opening a door from the inside when armed means “blowing the chute.” Not only is it dangerous, but it undeniably means a delay or cancellation. Yes, I’ve seen a blown chute, but only once in my career. When doors are opened from the outside the chutes are automatically disarmed. I still get the heebie-jeebies if I have to open a cabin door.
Equipment: Another name for airplane. Airline pilots can only fly the same equipment (airplane) but flight attendants can fly various types of equipment. Pilots now and again have equipment bids to select their airplane choice.
ETA (Estimated Time of Arrival): You will hear that a lot in our announcements. But is it the ETA for touch down or at the gate? Debatable. I give it as the “touch down” time because that is when passengers look at their watches to decide whether they have to bamboozle it. I figure people add about 10 minutes of taxi time for large airports and five minutes or less for small less busy airports. Ambiguity is everywhere.
FAA/TC: The Federal Aviation Authority and Transport Canada are pilot friends. Ahem.
Just like that nice police officer is your friend as you receive a speeding ticket. But seriously, they set the goalposts as to the rules and regulations we abide by. Reminds me of an overused aviation meme, “Hi, I am from the FAA and I am here to help you.”
Fear of Flying aka Aerophobia: An anxiety disorder involving the sense of fear and panic some passengers experience when they fly or anticipate flying. It can be alleviated or treated by reading books like this, taking courses or seeking professional help.
FIN or FIN number: This number is used by airlines to differentiate their fleet. The true acronym is illusive. Maybe Fuselage Identification Number, or Fleet Identification Number or the number inscribed on the vertical tail called the fin? When a pilot calls maintenance, they address themselves using the FIN number, maintenance is not concerned about the flight number. FIN number is not to be confused with the aircraft registration which is an alphanumeric code like that of car license plate. Aircraft registration starts with a “N” in the USA and “C” in Canada.
First class and business class: Many get this confused and think the seats in the front of the aircraft are deemed first class. Truth be told there is no North American carriers with first class cabins. Yes, international carriers flying into North America such as Emirates, Etihad, Singapore, Lufthansa and Air France have first class.
Flight attendant NOT stewardess or steward: Saying “stewardess” instead of flight attendant reflects how little you travel or how old you are. Be cool, start flying and delete stewardess from your vocabulary.
“Flight attendants take positions for takeoff”: Or some form of this announcement indicates takeoff is imminent and everyone should be seated.
Flight crew: Crew members designated as the operating crew.
Flight deck NOT cockpit: Cockpit is waning like the term stewardess. Show people you are in the know by shying away from the term cockpit. The flight deck is a pilot’s office with a great view especially from the left seat. J
Flight level: Cruising level can also be used to denote the cruising altitude. Flight levels in North America start at 18,000 feet. A small Cessna would never get to flight level heights. Flight levels are predicated on setting the altimeter to a standard value. In the Caribbean, Europe and most places around the world flight levels start at unique altitudes. In Cuba, flight level starts at 4000 feet.
Galley: Means kitchen in an aircraft and stems from the naval term. Stay out of the galley when meal service is happening. It’s an easy to way to annoy flight attendants by trying to chat them up.
Gate agent aka ticket agent: Ticket agent is weening a little too. The ones at the gate are gate agents or CSAs (Customer Service Agents). I know, I married one.
George. During the initial development days of a crude autopilot led by Lawrence Speery a colloquialism for the seemingly magical, invisible copilot emerged. To this day, the term “George” or “George is flying” unofficially represents the autopilot system. There are two Georges on most airliners.
Go around or missed approach: Sometimes a landing can’t be carried out. Either an aircraft has not exited fast enough, weather is an issue or the pilots were not set up to continue the approach so a go around or missed approach is performed. Yes, they can be abrupt with some considering them aggressive maneuvers as the power advances. But it’s safe.
Great circle. One would think a straight line is the shortest distance between two cities but “as a crow flies” is not the shortest when talking flights over the globe. That is why your fight from London, England back to New York would fly over the southern tip of Greenland.
“Grease it on”: All pilots want smooth landings. There is nothing better for the self-esteem. If you want to stroke a pilot’s ego, just tell them they really “greased it on.”
Ground stop/ground hold or ground stop/gate hold: These are all delays. It’s part of the traffic flow program. A ground delay is aircraft delayed at their departure airport in order to manage demand and capacity at their arrival airport. Flights are assigned departure times and you may find airplanes sitting at a conspicuous spot ¾ maybe with the engines shut down to save fuel. A ground stop is a procedure requiring aircraft that meet specific criteria to remain on the ground. It may be airport specific, related to a geographical area, or equipment related. A gate hold is when ATC will not grant a push back clearance due usually to congestion. I’ve sat at the gate (stand) in London, England for 50 minutes waiting our turn.
Headwinds: Winds blowing onto the nose of the aircraft. In North American latitudes, winds generally blow from the west so a westbound flight would encounter a headwind. Flight planners factor this in when building schedules.
Heavy Showers: This could be code for “thunderstorms” or it may mean heavy showers. Thunderstorm implies very nasty weather so many airlines tone it down as far as usage.
High cloud: Classification of cloud with bases starting at 20,000 feet. Many pilots will report high cloud in their announcements not knowing about 2% of the passengers would know or care what a high cloud is.
Holding pattern: A racetrack-shaped course flown during weather or traffic delays. They tend to be turns to the right, but not always. For modern airliners, it is just a push of a couple of buttons to set up a hold. But during ab initio pilot training, a student pilot must determine how to enter the hold and which way to turn. It was one of the more difficult things to nail down during a flight test. Been there!
“How’s the ride?”: What pilots ask to ATC or on common frequencies checking on flight conditions. It drives air traffic controllers nuts, as many pilots as soon as they check in say, “it’s smooth” and in the same breath ask “how’s the ride?” I can hear/feel ATC cringing.
In-charge (I/C) or FSD (Flight Service Director) or lead flight attendant. Maybe even “Queen bee?”: The flight attendant in charge of the operating flight.
IATA (International Air Transport Association): It consists of about 290 airlines supporting aviation with global standards for safety, security, efficiency and sustainability. The three-letter code for every airport (what you see on your ticket or bag tag) is an IATA code.
ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization): A United Nations agency managing the administration and governance of the International Civil Aviation. Headquarters is in Montreal, Quebec. ICAO codes for airports are four letters and can be far-fetched as to their derivative. For example, BDA is the IATA code for Bermuda (makes sense) but how do you get TXKF for the ICAO code? Yes, it can be explained.
ILS (Instrument Landing System): Consists of the localizer and glideslope providing horizontal and vertical guidance for precision approaches. Most large airports offer ILS capability and it’s a pilot’s preferred approach.
In range checks: These checks are instigated at about 10,000 feet meaning about 10 minutes to landing. You may hear a double or triple chime indicating to the flight attendants to secure the cabin for landing.
Jet lag (circadian dysrhythmia): A physiological condition which results from alterations to the body's circadian rhythm caused by rapid long-distance trans-meridian (east–west or west–east) travel. Generally, you don’t get jet lag flying in a north-south direction. NASA avers for each time zone traversed a day is required to recover.
Jet stream: A narrow meandering fast current of air normally found at higher heights discovered in WWII during high altitude bombing missions. The U.S, Britain and most of the world state jet streams must be at least 80 knots. Environment Canada stipulates winds shall be 60 knots or more.
Jetway (bridge): The bulky, boxlike tunnel used to connect the gate entrance to the door of the plane. Few jetways around the world have windows. Pity. This jerky moving wheeled contraption is the thing that breaks down after wanting out from a 10-hour flight.
By the way, it is the airport authority that own and fix them not the airlines. Most also supply conditioned air and power. The conditioned air can be debatable at times.
Jumpseat: An extra seat (sometimes foldable) in the flight deck for a supervisory pilot, government flight checker, training pilot or for a contingent airline employee. Some larger aircraft have two jumpseats.
Jumbo jet: A reserved usage for the four-engine mammoth B747. There are no longer any B747s flying for North American airlines. The term jumbo never really stuck for the Airbus A380. Most airport signs use a four-engine symbol. Funny, all North American carriers fly only two engine jets.
Knot: How pilots and the aviation world measure speed. It is a nautical (6076) mile per hour not to be confused with a statute mile (5280 feet). Pilots may brag about their airspeed during a P.A. A pilot may convert their 500 knot groundspeed to km/hr by doubling the value i.e. 1000 km/hr (really it is 926 kilometers per hour).
Lavatory: Airplane’s name for the washroom/toilet. Remember there are smoke detectors capable of knowing when you light up. Funny, at one time there were smoking sections on an aircraft, but now if you light up, the airline’s sense of humor has disappeared.
Livery: Fancy name for paint job or design. Many have their opinion on aircraft livery and they will tell you.
Logbook: Every aircraft must have its own logbook which records flight legs. There is also a cabin logbook a head flight attendant fills out for unserviceable equipment. Like the seat you had that wouldn’t recline.
Long haul flight – a flight of considerable distance and time – often with passengers suffering some significant jet-lag along the way. Long haul is about 10 to 13 hours. Ultra-long haul is 13 hours or more.
Mach: Created by Austrian physicists Ernest Mach. Pronounced “mock.” He divided the aircraft’s speed by the speed of sound. Narrow body aircraft fly at Mach .74 to Mach .80 whereas wide bodies fly at .80 to .88.
MEL (Minimum Equipment List). It is a heavy book found in the flight deck whereby maintenance or pilots consult to determine the serviceability of the aircraft due to a “snag.”
Minimum connecting time – the smallest amount of time allowed to change planes at an airport. If these conditions are breached it is known as an illegal connection.
Mist: A more subdued term for fog.
Nautical mile: 6,076 feet. Used in wind and aircraft speeds and distance in aviation.
No-shows – the term relating to passengers who either arrive late or do not arrive at all to travel on their booked flight. Gate agents are known to check the nearest bar for “no shows.”
Non-stop. This is the flight to be on instead of a “direct flight” as it may mean one or more stops along the way.
Non-Revenue: Passenger flying free of charge (not really free), on a standby basis, by presenting an airline/aviation employee pass. Non-revenue passengers may or may not be on duty, therefore this expression also applies to repositioning crew members. Also known as Non-Rev for short.
On call: A period of time during which a reserve pilot or flight attendant may be assigned a flight.
PIL: Passenger Identification List. “Are you on the PIL?” is NOT a personal question.
Pointy end: It alludes to the front of the airplane. It many reference J (business) class or first class or even the flight deck.
Pre/Post 911: The Julian calendar includes BC and AD. In aviation, many policies and security issues adhere to the Pre and Post 911 dates.
Pushback: The process of moving an aircraft backwards from the gate accomplished by coordination between the pilots and ground maintenance crew.
Ramp, apron and tarmac: Essentially the same thing but the media likes coining it the tarmac. But they also use tarmac for the taxiway and sometimes the runway.
Rampie: Name for ground handling agent. You may also hear “ramp rat” tossed about.
Red alert: A Canadian airport warning when thunderstorms are within three statute miles of the airport. Outside, terminal strobe lights may also ensue.
Red-eye: A flight that departs late at night from the west and arrives early in the morning, usually after 9 p.m. and arriving by 5 or 6 in the morning. The actual “red eye” stems from being up all night.
Reverse thrust: The temporary diversion of an aircraft engine's thrust so that it is directed forward, rather than backward. This aids in slowing the aircraft upon landing. If possible, many airlines use reverse thrust sparingly to reduce wear and tear of the engines. Hence many passengers associate a nice landing when they don’t hear or feel the loud rumbling caused by reverse thrust.
Seat belt extension. An addition to the regular seat belt for the more rotund passenger. They are getting used more and more.
Seniority: A numerical ranking system based on date of hire used by the airlines to determine positions, vacation, domiciles, monthly flights and more. It is the pecking order for anyone’s aviation career. Some airlines try to use a more fairer approach like status pay, but the seniority system rules in North America.
Simulator: Where pilots learn to fly their aircraft, and stay current on their aircraft type. They are multimillion dollar marvels propped up on spindly hydraulic jacks capable of replicating about 500 scenarios/emergencies. You may hear it referred to as “the box,” or the “sin bin.”
Slam Clicker: A member of the flight crew that heads directly to their hotel room, slams the door and clicks the lock. They usually stay there until crew pick up or don’t socialize if they wonder from the room.
Snag: An item that will need immediate or eventual fixing. Many things on an airplane do not have to be fixed right away if they adhere to the guidelines found in the MEL (Minimum Equipment List) such as a reading light, leaky water facet or clogged drain. But the paperwork may cause a delay.
Stand. Another name for gate. I haven’t heard it used in North America.
Standby: A passenger holds a ticket but sometimes does not automatically guarantee a reserved seat means instead that they are waiting for availability. A standby passenger may also refer to a non-revenue (contingent) passenger or employee. Sometimes, they “stand” there and wave “bye” to the airplane.
Static wicks. Stick like devices found on the trailing edges of wings, flaps, tail, etc to dissipate static build up.
Stopover – an overnight stay (or possibly longer) at a location en route to your final destination. This is usually done to break up a very long journey for example London to Los Angeles with a stopover in New York.
Tail Spotter: An airplane geek fascinated with aircraft/aviation. Almost every airport has them usually found along the perimeter of the airport premises. Many are avid photographers and some travel the world to capture airplane photos.
Tailwind: Wind in the same direction as the motion of the aircraft.
TCAS: Traffic Collision Avoidance System. A system which interrogates other aircraft and determines if a conflict is imminent. If so, it will dictate specific instructions.
“Thanks for your patience”: An overused and very assuming phrase as in “we will be pushing back 30 minutes late because of the late arriving aircraft. Thanks for your patience.”
“Top of drop”: Means time of descent. Pilots will give flight attendants a “top of drop” time according to the flight management system’s calculations.
Transcon: Transcontinental flights either from the west coast to the east or vice versa.
TSA (Transportation Security Administration): A post 911 agency having the authority over security of the travelling public and flight crew.
Turn: As in, “I am doing a turn today” meaning a flight attendant or pilot will be flying back on the return flight the same shift. It is deemed productive flying meaning they accumulate many hours in a short time. I am shocked some passengers think aircrew do turns after a 8 to 12 hour flight. Think about it.
U/S: Unserviceable. “Ladies and gentlemen, it is hot in the cabin because the APU is U/S.” Translation: the auxiliary power unit that supplies cool air is not working.
Unruly Passenger: A disruptive passenger. There are four levels and airlines take it very serious.
Vortices (wake turbulence): Aircraft wing tips induce swirling air that can cause an abrupt bump to another aircraft like a boat encountering waves from another boat’s wake.
Wheels up time: A ground delay or part of the flow control program which dictates a flight to be airborne at a certain time.
Wide body and narrow body: No, it doesn’t refer to the size of the pilot or flight attendant. (But it’s been known for pilots or flight attendants to “gain a few” when they regularly fly overseas). A wide body aircraft has two aisles whereas narrow bodies have one aisle.
Winglets: Sleek devices to increase efficiency by reducing drag at the wingtips. Some aircraft have unique winglets especially the newer B737s with a dual feather design.
Zulu, GMT (Greenwich Mean time), and UTC (Universal Coordinated Time): Z for Zulu originating from the military is the name of the international time zone based in Greenwich, England whereby all aviators refer to. Greenwich Mean Time is passé but still frequently used and it’s not UCT for Universal Coordinated Time but UTC. Aviation is unique.