Aviation geeks are serious about the vocabulary of flying. The general public, mainstream media, and even many airline employees are not as focused on using the correct terminology. For many, it may seem to be a simple case of semantics, but for the record, let’s clear up some of the most common errors when it comes to chatting about all things aviation.
1. Direct versus nonstop flight
While you might assume that a direct flight is actually nonstop, 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 on board or even have to deplane and change aircraft. As long as the same flight number is in place, it’s a direct flight. For example, airlines like Southwest have plenty of direct flights in their network (a flight between Baltimore and Dallas may stop in Nashville but keep the same flight number).
Why do these even exist? It is a relic of a few decades ago when most airlines relied on selling tickets through global distribution systems used by travel agents. For example, American may have a direct flight (with the same number) between Orlando and Dublin, but it actually stops in Charlotte and customers must change planes. Still, the American flight appears at the top of the search list when flights are arranged by flight time along with nonstop flights (like the Aer Lingus nonstop between Orlando and Dublin). This allows American to compete more effectively with the nonstop flight between those two cities. Many airlines do this, but it may not make the most sense to 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Let’s get this one out of the way: The terms air hostess, stewardess, and steward are outdated and even cringeworthy to onboard crew who hear these terms regularly.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 the cabin crew of your flight 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 in today’s touchy inflight environment, 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 either a serious or fatal injury to a passenger or structural damage of an 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. If you are changing planes somewhere for a matter of an hour or two, that is more commonly referred to as a connection. This is an important distinction to make as it can affect the way an award ticket is priced. Some airlines charge extra for stopovers but not for layovers even if an overnight is involved.
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).