The Airport Tarmac

Guides · 4 min read · Jan 13, 2022
tarmac airport

Aviation is a field with a wide variety of terms that are used in ways that can be confusing for people who are not familiar with the aviation lingo. How can they not be confused when even people within the industry sometimes mix the terms up?

While we are going to talk about tarmac in this post, it is widely known that the term flight attendant is one that has caused a lot of confusion and even controversy sometimes. Flight attendants are part of the cabin crew and there are both female and male professionals making a career in this role. In the past, terms such as steward and stewardess were used, but they have been out of order since the 1970s. So, yes, aviation terminology has evolved and it can be confusing.

Luckily for you, here we are going to help you with some airport-related terminology, so you don’t get confused about it again.

Tarmac is an often confusing term used in aviation, usually referring to various surfaces found in different sections of an airport. Let’s begin by making this term clearer for you.

Multiple aircraft taxiing on a taxiway at an airport.

Aircraft park

The term tarmac is often used to describe airport parking areas but is actually a type of pavement. In general, tarmac is oftentimes used to refer to different areas of an airport where aircraft roam, but the truth is that airports have no area or section officially called tarmac. The parts that are commonly referred to as tarmac include:

  • The runway, which is the way used for takeoff and landing.
  • The taxiway, which is usually formed by several ways to connect the runway and the apron. Airplanes “taxi” from the runway to the apron after landing or from the apron to the active runway for takeoff.
  • The apron, which is the area near gates where airplanes actually park to load or unload passengers, luggage, and cargo. The term ramp is sometimes used. However, the term ramp is considered to be outdated, and you should be using the term apron instead.

So, if there is no area or section called tarmac in any airport, what does this term stand for? Let us tell you now.

What is a tarmac in an airport?

Tarmac is a registered trademark of the British building firm Tarmac Limited, which uses tarmac for the road surface of parking areas at certain airport facilities. Tarmac is the short form of tarmacadam, a material that was patented in 1901 in the UK.

This material is formed by a mixture of crushed rocks and cement that is sealed using tar.

Do airports use tarmac?

While many think the road surface seen in airports is tarmac, the truth is that this material was deemed as very crude, and it does not comply with current standards such as heavy loads of today’s aircraft. In fact, tarmac has not been used for many years.

Any modern airport now uses concrete pavement, a type of surface that meets the modern aviation industry requirements.

Do pilots call it a tarmac?

While there may be some cases when pilots unconsciously call any of the areas mentioned above “tarmac”, it is very rare. Keep in mind, there is no official definition for the term within aviation, so pilots and the rest of the professionals in the industry generally use appropriate terms instead.

However, there is one official use, and it is tarmac delay. It is said that the term was coined by a congressman who had no idea about aviation terminology, and this forced the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to use the term in official documents. The FAA defines it as a delay that occurs “when an airplane on the ground is either awaiting takeoff or has just landed and passengers do not have the opportunity to get off the plane”.

Small private jets parked on an apron at an airport on a clear day.

Air traffic controller: “On the ramp”

The main authorities, the FAA and ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) are clear about the official terms they use. While they both refer to “aircraft parking lots” with the term “apron”, control tower professionals like air traffic controllers use the term “ramp”. This is particularly true for controllers in the United States. But why?

The main reason is that seaplanes were very popular in the United States, so any airport receiving this type of aircraft would literally have a ramp from water to the airport terminal to provide access for cabin crew and passengers, and to allow for maintenance activities.

Final words about the airport tarmac

There you have it, now it should be clear that the real name for “aircraft parking lots” is the apron. Also, you can now understand why you may hear people saying ramp instead of an apron, but do not let them confuse you again, you know the planes are actually parked on the apron.

In addition, remember, tarmac is not a common material in Europe and all over the world, and any airport you go to outside the UK is probably paved with concrete instead.

Be aware that if your next flight makes you sit and wait for hours it will be called a tarmac delay. And while it may sound like a terrible mistake, it is official and there is nothing we can do to change it now.

Moreover, the media will probably keep making mistakes with these and other aviation terms.

For example, there are other parts of an airport with names that may be confusing for the general public. It is very likely that you have seen planes parked on the apron and connected to the gate with a kind of tunnel that allows people to walk and board such planes. That is the jet bridge, with trademarks such as Jetway and JetBridge sometimes confused as the official term.

A captain and a first officer sitting in an aircraft's cockpit, preparing for a flight.

Another good example from aviation terms that the media mistakes quite often is the use of the word pilot. There are different terms for different members of the cabin crew, and each of them has an important role. We can mention a pilot, a captain, a co-pilot, a first officer, a second officer, a flight engineer, and a navigator to give you an idea, so whenever an action is being described, the right role should be used. When the media speaks about pilots, they tend to forget these other terms exist, so we have to assume whether they refer to the captain or the first officer given the context.

If we read in the news that “the pilot” safely landed the plane after an emergency, the most probable meaning of “the pilot” would be that both the captain and the first officer did it together.

Of course, we understand that there are a lot of terms within this industry, and learning them all can be challenging. Therefore, we always recommend taking it easy, studying with a course or a few of them to gain more knowledge and you will start getting a good grasp of the aviation lingo.

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Carlos Collantes
Carlos Collantes
A mechanical engineer and aviation enthusiast dedicated to share some knowledge by creating top-notch content, especially in engineering and aviation topics.

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