Ask the Pilot

From "cross-check" to "wind shear": A glossary of airline-speak for the curious passenger.

Published May 4, 2007 11:05AM (EDT)

There's a cartoon on Page 71 of the April 30 issue of the New Yorker. It depicts two pilots sitting in their seats. (It's obvious from the small touches that the artist went out of his way to realistically portray a cockpit: the jump-seat briefing cards tucked into the chair-back pockets; the retracted shoulder belts; the sidewall-mounted fire extinguisher with metal tension clasps; the correctly placed altitude indicator and horizontal situation indicator instruments; even the elevator trim rocker switches, right where they should be on the control yokes.) The caption goes like this: The captain (wearing the correct four-stripe epaulets) is saying to the first officer (wearing the correct three-stripe epaulets): "Whether I have five passengers or five hundred, I try to make the same inane announcements."

As a pilot who tries hard to keep his public address chatter brief and informative, my feelings are hurt. But I have to ask: Is it true? Do pilots, as a rule, make inane announcements? I don't always listen, frankly, but I assumed we did a pretty good job. I mean, what passenger doesn't want to hear that "we'll be shooting the localizer to one six left?" Or that the wind in St. Louis is blowing from the southeast at 8 knots? Or that the dew point is up to 16 Celsius? People need to know.

OK, so maybe the artist has a point.

The experience of air travel is unique in that people subject themselves to a long string of mostly anonymous authorities. From the moment you step through the terminal doors, you're subject to orders -- stand here, take your shoes off there, put your seat belt on, do this, put away that -- and a flurry of information. Most of it comes not face-to-face, but over a microphone, delivered by employees, seen and unseen, in a vernacular that binges on jargon, acronyms and confusing euphemisms. There are people who make dozens of air journeys annually and still have only a vague understanding of many terms.

So, to help the baffled flier, what follows is Part 1 of a glossary. This week, we'll concentrate on those expressions you hear while aloft or otherwise on board an aircraft. Next week, we'll cover terms you encounter in the terminal and at the gate (plus any on-the-plane items that have managed to escape me). Not every word or phrase is included -- some, as you'll see, are presented tongue-in-cheek -- but I've focused on those most easily misunderstood, or not understood at all. Some entries have been covered in prior columns, or in my book, most often as part of larger discussions. They are presented again below, alone and more concisely.

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CROSS-CHECK "Flight attendants, doors to arrival and cross-check."

This one goes first because I'm been asked about it more often than any other word or phrase. "Cross-check" is a generic term used by pilots and flight attendants meaning that one person has verified the action of another. It's quite common, for instance, during the read/response choreography of the cockpit checklist. In the cabin, it pertains to verifying the arming or disarming function of the emergency escape slides that are attached to the doors. When armed, a slide will automatically deploy the instant its door is opened. Disarmed, it needs to be deployed manually. After the plane leaves the gate, the slides have to be armed in case of an emergency evacuation; when it docks, they're disarmed to keep them from billowing into the boarding tunnel, or onto the apron, when the doors are opened for servicing or DEPLANING. The flight attendants cross-check one another's stations to make sure everything is in the right position. The exact phraseology varies airline to airline. Some don't use "cross-check" at all, but say only, "doors to arrival/departure," or "arm doors," or "doors to automatic," or something to that effect. (Note: Contrary to what many people think, these announcements are made exclusively for and by the flight attendants, not the pilots.)

ALL-CALL "Flight attendants, doors to arrival all-call."

"All-call" is another variation on the doors procedures, above. Each cabin crew member reports to the lead flight attendant or purser that the doors and slides are properly set.

LAST-MINUTE PAPERWORK "Good morning from the flight deck. This is the first officer speaking. We're just finishing up some last-minute paperwork and should be under way shortly."

Everything is buttoned up and the flight is ready for push-back. Then comes the wait for "some last-minute paperwork," which winds up taking half an hour. Usually it's something to do with the weight-and-balance record. Or it might be a revision to the takeoff performance data. Or it could mean waiting for the maintenance guys to deal with a write-up and get the logbook in order. Whatever is going on, the pilots aren't trying to fool you. They don't know exactly how long these things are going to take. It should be quick, but it's pretty much out of their hands.


Meaning: the cockpit.


Second in command on the flight deck. He (or she) sits on the right and wears three stripes. The first officer is fully qualified to operate the aircraft in all stages of flight, including takeoffs and landings, and does so in alternating turns with the captain.


The pilot in command, ultimately responsible for the aircraft and everybody in it. He (or she) is the one with four stripes and the larger paycheck. (Unless it's a regional airline, where he's the one with four stripes and a slightly smaller food stamps allocation.)

ATC "Unfortunately, ATC has assigned us a holding pattern for at least the next 45 minutes."

Meaning: air traffic control -- a collective term for the many personnel who guide, supervise and coordinate the movement of aircraft. These aren't just the people you see in movies hunched over radar screens; ATC has many responsibilities, and the controllers themselves are in many different locations, some of them nowhere near the airport. They function separately as "clearance delivery," "ground control," "TOWER," "approach control," "departure control," "center" and assorted others. A given flight contacts each of these in sequence. Air-to-ground communication is normally via two-way radio, but satellite and other computerized linkups are increasingly common, especially for flights across the ocean and on trans-polar routes.


The control tower oversees only takeoffs and landings -- i.e., traffic on the runways or in the immediate vicinity of the airport. Attempting to keep things simple, airline staff often use the word interchangeably -- and wrongly, most of the time -- as a general reference to ATC. The tower itself does not assign or coordinate delays.


A racetrack-shaped course flown by aircraft during weather or traffic delays. Most holds are flown "as published" on aeronautical charts, but can be improvised almost anywhere.

EFC TIME "We've been given an EFC time for 30 after the hour."

There's no reason passengers have to hear this, but pilots tend to forget that most of their customers aren't fluent in ATC argot. The "expect further clearance" time is the point at which a crew expects to be released from a holding pattern. Any time ATC assigns airborne holding, it assigns an EFC time in conjunction. It might be amended (most are), but an initial time is always given. It helps with fuel planning, and is needed in the event of a communication failure.

KNOTS "The winds at St. Louis are from the southeast at 8 knots."

Used both at sea and in the air, a knot is nothing more than a mile per hour. Eight knots means 8 miles per hour. Except they are nautical miles, not statute miles. The nautical kind are slightly longer, at 6,082 feet versus the statute mile's 5,280. Thus, 8 knots in an airplane is slightly faster than 8 miles per hour in a car. To be precise, multiply by 1.15. (Incidentally, the homonymic between "knot" and "nautical" is, well, not the right idea. The original definition of "knot" goes back to when lengths of knotted rope were tossed from a ship to figure distances. Eventually these literal knots were equated with nautical miles.)

FLIGHT LEVEL "We've now reached our cruising altitude of flight level three-three-zero. I'll go ahead and turn off the seat-belt sign."

There's a technical definition of "flight level," but I'm not going to bore you with it. Basically this is a fancy way of telling you how many thousands of feet you are above sea level. Just add a couple of zeroes. Flight level three-three-zero is 33,000 feet.

AREA OF WEATHER "This is the captain speaking. Due to an area of weather over New Jersey, we'll be turning southbound toward Philadelphia."

Different from the generic "weather," this typically means a thunderstorm or zone of heavy precipitation.


"Air pocket" has no precise meteorological meaning other than a transient jolt of turbulence. Turbulence itself is self-explanatory, but everything you need to know on the subject is here.


If you can picture the cleaved roil of water that trails behind a boat or ship, you've got the right idea. With aircraft, wake effect is exacerbated by a pair of vortices that spin from the wingtips. Higher-pressure air beneath the tip is drawn toward the lower-pressure air on top, resulting in a circular flow that trails behind the aircraft like a pronged pair of horizontal tornadoes. Encounters with wingtip vortices can be uncomfortable, but are only dangerous in extreme cases. Click here for an in-depth discussion.


A sudden change in the velocity and/or direction of the wind. "Wind shear" is one of those buzzwords that scare the crap out of people, but in fact it's very common and rarely hazardous. (Thanks to better training and equipment, there hasn't been a major wind-shear accident in the United States in over two decades.)

APPROACH (or INITIAL APPROACH) "Ladies and gentlemen, we've begun our initial approach into Frankfurt."

When invoked by the cabin crew, "approach" is nothing more than a way of referring to the descent for landing. "Initial approach" is merely the early part of it. In pilot-speak, "initial approach" is meaningless, but "approach" is more specific, referring to a published procedure known as an INSTRUMENT APPROACH.


There are several kinds, but basically an instrument approach is a charted series of altitudes, headings and speeds that an aircraft follows toward the runway, using ground-based radio facilities (or, more and more commonly, GPS signals) for precise low-altitude guidance. By far the most widely used instrument approach is the ILS (instrument landing system), whereby a plane tracks a pair of electronic beams -- one vertical, the other horizontal -- down to the runway threshold. Instrument approaches are invaluable during low visibility, but are assigned even in good weather to better organize the flow of traffic.


If the weather is above certain parameters of ceiling and visibility, crews are frequently assigned visual approaches, exempt from the step-by-step protocols and course-tracking instrument approach. Ordinarily, ATC will guide and sequence traffic until relatively close to the airport, but as the name suggests, final maneuvering to land takes place based on what the pilot sees outside. Some visual approaches, including several into New York's LaGuardia and Washington National, are more regimented. They need to be flown exactly as depicted on charts, referencing landmarks on the ground. Next time you're landing at LGA, should you find yourself barreling in over Queens, tracking the Long Island Expressway, followed by a sharp left turn directly above Shea Stadium, that's the "Expressway Visual" to Runway 31.

FINAL APPROACH "Ladies and gentlemen, we are now on our final approach into Miami."

As pilots see it, an airplane is on final approach when it has reached the last, straight-in segment of the landing pattern. Aligned with the extended centerline of the runway, there are no more turns or maneuvering. Flight attendants speak of final approach on their own, more general terms in reference to the latter portion of the descent.

CLEARED TO LAND "Ladies and gentlemen, we've been cleared to land in Detroit. Please stow your carry-ons and return all seat backs to their full, upright and locked position."

Upon receipt of this ATC directive, a plane is allowed to continue its approach and touch down without further instruction or clearance. It can come seconds before touchdown, or many miles out, depending on circumstances. Typically it's received at or around the time you hear the landing gear clunking into place. The cleared-to-land announcement made by flight attendants, quoted above, is almost always bogus. In reality, the cabin crew hasn't the slightest idea when the flight has been cleared to land. I don't know how or why this habit got started, but it never fails to irk me. The announcement usually comes in conjunction with the 10,000-foot "ding" from the flight deck, when actual landing clearance is still several minutes away.


Different dings mean different dings -- er, things -- varying airline to airline. And no, there isn't any we-are-now-about-to-crash signal. The chimes heard after takeoff, and again prior to landing, are normally made when passing 10,000 feet, below which altitude the flight attendants are supposed to contact the cockpit only for reasons pertaining to safety. Once the dings are acknowledged, they are free to call up and complain about the temperature.


Meaning: upright

TAMPERING WITH, DISABLING OR DESTROYING "Federal law prohibits tampering with, disabling or destroying a lavatory smoke detector."

While we're at it, this is another example of fatty verbiage that serves no purpose other than to bore passengers. Meaning: tampering with.

WATER LANDING "In the unlikely event of a water landing, your seat cushion may be used as a flotation device."

Go ahead and snicker. Everybody does. The oxymoronic silliness of the phrase can't be denied, but contrary to popular assumption there have been several instances when passengers made good use of those cushions, rafts and vests. An earlier Ask the Pilot installment covers this subject in detail.


Now and then, for any of various reasons, spacing between airplanes falls below the minimums and a plane must abandon its approach, or "go around." A variant of the go-around, spoken of somewhat interchangeably, is the "missed approach," whereby a plane pulls off the same maneuver for weather-related reasons. (If, in the course of an instrument approach, visibility drops below a prescribed value, or the plane has not made visual contact with the runway upon reaching the minimum allowable altitude, the crew must climb away.) Having to go around does not, except in highly extraordinary circumstances, imply that you were close to hitting another aircraft. The limits are set for that reason -- to keep you away from any jeopardizing encroachment. And although the abrupt transition from descent to ascent is dramatic to the senses, it is perfectly natural for an airplane.

AT THIS TIME "At this time, we ask that you please put away all electronic devices and place all cellular phones in the off position."

Meaning: now, or presently. This is air travel's signature euphemism, and one whose needlessness really sets my teeth on edge.


Meaning: off

DEPLANE "Please remember to take all of your belongings before deplaning."

"Deplane" is used to describe the opposite of boarding an aircraft. There are those who feel the root "plane" should not be used as a verb, ever, fearing a chain reaction of abominable copycats. Imagine "decar" for getting out of your car, or "debed" for waking up. In fact, dates "deplane" to the 1920s, and while it's not the slickest-sounding word, I'm known to employ it myself. Like "stewardess," it's a term of occasional convenience. There are few snappy, P.A.-friendly options with the same useful meaning. "Disembark" is the most elegant one available, and it's rather long and clumsy.

DO "We do appreciate your choosing United." Or, "We do remind you that smoking is not permitted."

Meaning: nothing. This bizarre emphatic has no grammatical justification. What's wrong with "Thank you for choosing United" or "Smoking is not allowed"? Is this how people imagine that airline employees talk to each other? "I do love you, Steve, but I cannot marry you at this time."

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Next week: "Tarmac," "ramp," "ground stop" and more.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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