Airplane Taking Off

Airport Jargon

From Word Genius

Airport jargon can sound like a different language. From following the flight attendant’s instructions to listening to the pilot’s announcements, the common traveler isn’t going to know every term in the aviation handbook. If you’re wondering about a cross-check before takeoff, or where the apron is, we’ve rounded up some popular air travel terms to further explain their meanings, ensuring that your next trip to the airport is smooth sailing.


The tarmac refers to the paved area where planes take off, land, and taxi. The word “tarmac” is actually a shortened version of “tarmacadam.” Tarmacadam is used to describe a type of pavement made out of crushed stone, covered in tar. Any area at an airport that is surfaced with this material can be called the tarmac. The word was named after Scottish engineer John Loudon McAdam,who invented “macadam” (the earliest form of this pavement) in the 18th century. 


When the pilot asks the crew to “cross-check” before takeoff or deplaning, they’re asking their flight attendants to verify that the cabin doors are armed or disarmed. Attendants first check their own doors and then cross-check their colleagues’ doors. The doors are armed for takeoff, meaning that slides will automatically deploy if the door is opened. After landing, flight attendants must cross-check again to disarm the doors when approaching the gate, allowing passengers to deplane normally. 


The purser is the chief flight attendant in the cabin. They are responsible for overseeing the duties of other flight attendants, filling out paperwork, and making sure that everyone is safe and comfortable during their travels. The term comes from old seafaring days when the person in charge of the ship’s money or provisions (the purse) was called the “purser.” 


The cockpit is the section of the aircraft that is used by the pilot and co-pilot. It holds the controls and instrument panel used to fly the plane, and on commercial airlines, it is closed off to the rest of the cabin while in flight. This unusual word comes from the 16th century when it was used to describe an enclosed space for bird fighting (gamecocks), back when the sport was popular. In the early 1700s, it gained nautical usage, describing a midshipman’s below deck compartment. Like other maritime terminology, it made its way into aviation handbooks in 1914, shortly after the invention of the airplane.


Yes, this is a fan at a Grateful Dead concert, but in the airline industry, a “deadhead” is the term used for a uniformed crew member who is flying, but not working. Deadheading happens often, as flight attendants are transported to their next assignment or back to their home airport after a shift. But it can sometimes cause confusion in the cabin, especially if a passenger asks the crew member to perform what would be a normal duty. So, if you see an airline attendant in a passenger seat taking a snooze or watching a movie, they aren’t being lazy — they’re just not on duty and are enjoying the flight as a passenger.


At an airport, the area that surrounds the gate where planes are parked and serviced is sometimes called the “apron,” “ramp,” or even “tarmac.” According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the official term for this area is the apron. “Ramp” is essentially interchangeable with “apron,” but “ramp” is an informal term used in the U.S. and Canada. The apron is also sometimes referred to informally as the “tarmac,” which describes the entire area that is paved with tarmacadam. 


In aviation, a red-eye flight is one scheduled to depart at night and arrive the next morning. Its nickname comes from the sleep deprivation involved in overnight travel, causing passengers to have red eyes from fatigue. The term was popularized in the 1960s, shortly after the boom of the airline industry when overnight flights became available.

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