6 Aviation Words You May Be Using Incorrectly

Do you know the difference between a direct flight and a nonstop flight?

An airplane wing on a sunny day, with fluffy clouds

The world of aviation comes with its own highly specific lingo—and we often aren’t speaking the same language.

Courtesy of Ross Parmly/Unsplash

Aviation geeks are serious about the vocabulary of flying, but the general public, media, and even many airline employees are not as focused on using the correct terminology. For many, it may seem like a simple case of semantics, but knowing how to use these terms correctly will make you a more informed flier—and it may even come in handy when you’re planning your next trip.

1. Direct versus nonstop flight

While you might assume that a direct flight is synoymous with a nonstop flight, you would be mistaken. A direct flight refers to a flight with one flight number that stops one or more times between its origin and destination. Passengers might remain onboard or even have to deplane and change aircraft. As long as the same flight number is in place, it’s a direct flight.

Why do these even exist? They’re a relic from the early days of commercial air travel, when aircraft ranges were more limited, and most airlines relied on selling tickets through global distribution systems used by travel agents. Flights between two major destinations would be marketed as “direct,” even if they stopped several times along the way to refuel or pick up passengers. Unless you like adding a few hours to your travel time, it’s best to book a nonstop flight instead of a direct one.

2. Flight attendant versus stewardess

Let’s get this one out of the way: The terms air hostess, stewardess, and steward are outdated and even cringeworthy to onboard crew who hear these terms regularly. These days, the proper terminology for members of the cabin crew is flight attendant.

3. Final descent versus final approach

This is one you might hear flight attendants unknowingly mention in error. Final approach refers to the final stages of a flight as it completes the last few thousand feet of descent over the runway. Flight crew often mention the plane is on final approach to a destination while the plane is still at 10,000 feet (or more!). This should be referred to as final descent. By the time the aircraft reaches final approach, even the flight attendants should be strapped in to their seats. Although we don’t suggest correcting a flight attendant, you can have a good chuckle the next time you hear this common error.

4. Accident versus incident

These terms are often misused in the media. The International Civil Aviation Organization defines an accident as an event that results in a serious or fatal injury to a passenger, damage or structural failure of an aircraft, or a missing or inaccessible aircraft. An incident is far less severe and refers to an irregularity in the normal operation of a flight. A plane overshooting the runway with minor injuries is an incident, not an accident.

5. Stopover versus layover

A stopover is when a passenger spends more than 24 hours in a city while traveling between different origin and destination points. A layover refers to any stop between two points that is less than 24 hours. In fact, layover is more often used when one has to spend the night but still does not spend 24 hours in one place. This is an important distinction to make as it can affect the way an award ticket is priced. If you are changing planes somewhere for a matter of an hour or two, that is more commonly referred to as a connection.

6. Runway versus taxiway

Once a plane touches down, passengers often reach for their phone to connect with loved ones. Someone will probably inadvertently say, “We’re still on the runway,” but actually, the runway is the strip of pavement where planes take off and land. Planes turn off the runway onto a series of taxiways to get you to the airport terminal building.

By the way, the word tarmac, often used in aviation stories by the general media, is incorrect, too. Tarmac is often misused for the area where planes park or move about on the ground. It is actually a type of surfacing material used to pave the ground (like cement or asphalt); instead, the area where planes park is officially known as the apron (or the ramp).

This story was originally published in June 2017. It was updated in April 2024.

Ramsey Qubein is a freelance travel journalist covering hotels, cruises, airlines, and loyalty programs from around the globe.
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