Ask the pilot

From "deadheading" to "tarmac," Part 2 of our expert's handy glossary for the savvy passenger.

Published May 11, 2007 10:00AM (EDT)

I might not be Suze Orman or that guy with the big shiny teeth, but my two-part airline vocabulary builder gives you the competitive edge. Fly savvy and informed, ready to chat up that gate agent or DEADHEADING crew member with confidence and panache. The following terms and phrases were covered in Part 1:

Cross-check; all-call; last-minute paperwork; flight deck; first officer (copilot); captain; ATC; control tower; holding pattern; EFC time; flight level; knot; area of weather; air pocket; wake turbulence; wind shear; approach; instrument approach; final approach; water landing; cleared to land; go-around (missed approach); the full, upright and locked position; tampering with, disabling or destroying; do; at this time; the off position; deplane.

In fielding this week's mail, I've learned that readers overseas are mostly unfamiliar with phrases like "the off position" and "tampering with, disabling and destroying." We in America should be so lucky. I hate to say it, but this style of bloated aerochatter is almost exclusively a U.S. phenomenon. You do not hear banal babbling on the likes of Singapore Airlines, Emirates, etc.

Anyway, this time we'll stay on the ground, with a focus on those expressions heard in and around the airport.

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You'll frequently see uniformed crew members riding in the cabin, repositioning to pick up a flight or traveling back to their base. In airline-speak, they are "deadheading." This travel is part of the crew's assigned rotation, and he or she is on the clock for purposes of pay and duty-time limitation. Deadheading is not the same as commuting to or from work on your own time (a pilot who lives in one city, but is based in another) or being engaged in personal travel. The latter is called "non-revving," from the term "non-revenue passenger."

EQUIPMENT "Due to an equipment change, our departure for Heathrow is now delayed three hours."

Meaning: an airplane. There's something strange about a collective refusal to call the focal object of the entire airline industry by its real name. Doing so adheres to one of the central canons of airlinese: Puff up an ordinary noun to make it formal and important.


Most passengers make the mistake of equating direct with NONSTOP. Technically, a direct flight is a routing along which the flight number does not change; it has nothing to do with whether the plane stops. For example, Delta Air Lines Flight 34 goes "direct" from Atlanta to Johannesburg, South Africa, with a stop in Dakar, Senegal. Occasionally, a direct flight even requires a change of planes. Most airline staff are smart enough to realize that if a passenger is asking if a flight is "direct," he or she is actually asking whether it stops. But beware of the fine print when booking your tickets.


That's the one that doesn't stop.

GATEHOUSE "If there is a passenger Smith in the gatehouse, would you please approach the podium."

An idiosyncratic way of saying "the gate area," aka the boarding lounge. "Gatehouse" has a folksy touch that I really like. They should use it more often. (And as several e-mailers have already noted, it can be argued that the "podium" isn't really a podium at all, depending which dictionary you cite. Either way, the expression serves its purpose and I'm letting it ride.)

PRE-BOARD "We would now like to pre-board those passengers requiring special assistance."

This one, on the other hand, has no charm. It means to board. Except, to board first.


A fancy, if grammatically over-the-top way of telling slow-moving passengers to get their asses in gear. They seem to think this provides more urgency than just a "final call" or "last call."

GROUND STOP "Sorry, folks, but we've just gotten word of a ground stop on all flights to Newark."

When the air traffic backlog becomes heavy enough, it can affect even those flights still taxiing or yet to leave the gate. Ground stops, as the name implies, preclude taking off toward a particular airport or region.

WHEELS-UP TIME "ATC has given us a wheels-up time of 12:30. Until then, sit tight and we'll keep you advised of any changes."

Sometimes referred to as a "slot time," this is the time, assigned by air traffic control and very much subject to change, that a ground-stopped flight will be accepted into the airspace system. It's not a leave-the-gate time but, rather, an actual liftoff time, so boarding and push-back have to be planned accordingly. Missing your slot can entail being dropped to the bottom of the queue.

IN RANGE "The flight has called in range, and we expect to begin boarding in approximately 40 minutes."

This is a common GATEHOUSE announcement during delays, when the outbound aircraft hasn't yet landed. Somewhere around the start of descent, the pilots will send an electronic "in range" message to system control, to let everybody know they'll be arriving shortly. How shortly is tough to tell, as the message is normally sent prior to any low-altitude maneuvering and sequencing, and assumes no inbound taxi congestion. What the gate staff is giving you is a best-case time for boarding. As a rule of thumb, add a bare minimum of 15 minutes.

RAMP "We're sorry, but your suitcase was crushed by a 747 out on the ramp."

"Ramp" refers to the aircraft and equipment movement areas closest to the terminal -- the aircraft parking zones and surrounds. In the early days of aviation, many aircraft were seaplanes or floatplanes. A plane either was in the water or was "on the ramp." So a ramp is a parking place for planes that aren't in the water. Today, that's just about all of them.


See RAMP, above, with a slight and not altogether explicable caveat: While a ramp is always an apron, an apron isn't always a ramp. Both are large expanses of TARMAC, but the latter isn't necessarily a parking area. Confused? Me too.


Wikipedia tells us the word is a portmanteau for "tar-penetration macadam," a highway surfacing material patented in Britain in 1901. Eventually it came to mean any sort of asphalt or blacktop. You hear it in reference to airports all the time, even though almost no ramp, apron, runway or taxiway is actually surfaced with the stuff. Real tarmac becomes soft in hot weather, and would turn to mush under the wheels of a heavy jet. (I think of Paul Weller's invocation of "sticky black tarmac" in the Jam song "That's Entertainment!") Like many words, it has outgrown its specificity. There are linguistic traditionalists who are bothered by this. I am not one of them.

"Tarmac" is also the title of an extremely famous poem I wrote some years ago. I'm unsure why I chose to title it such, though it might have something to do with the opening, which is set at London's Heathrow Airport. It goes like this:


At the far end of Heathrow is the row of hangars
where they load up the cargo planes. You walk across the asphalt and hide
from the rain under the wing of a 747, silver and red.
Below the windscreen is the emblem of a woman, a Union Jack
trailing from her hand. Through the mist are the lights of Terminal Four,
where the Concorde docks and where you can walk from airplane to hotel,
without even stepping outside. You remember
a thirty-dollar breakfast in there, and the pilgrims headed to Mecca,
one morning in the spring of '92. Now a British Airways jet roars past,
The engines rev, your adrenaline surges, then it's gone in a blast of heat,
a vortex of fog trailing from each wingtip. Up on the fin is a crest,
and if you bother to read it, the small print says: "To Fly, To Serve."
And hey, you think, that's a noble enough ambition.
Seven hours away, the twin blue towers of the Whitestone Bridge
are camouflaged against the noontime sky. Sitting at the gate,
it strikes you, like a New York fist in the nose, that your very first
trip to Manhattan, was seven years ago this very afternoon,
and how you were no less excited than Neil Armstrong must have been,
skipping across the surface of the moon.
That strangely warm day -- men and women in shorts in Gramercy Park, piles
of old snow melting in the gutter. What do they mean anymore, these fragments
of city and memory? The cab driver who knew the capital of every country on earth.
The taste of lemon on your girlfriend's breath. None of it
the romantic gray Gotham of the movies, and today the fifteen people
on the two o'clock shuttle don't seem burdened with history, yours or theirs.
The order of the day, in this so different life, is only to get home. Outside, seagulls
circle like buzzards. Gleaming yellow taxis slam shut their doors.

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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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