This Is Your Captain Speaking

The airlines have had some bad press lately.  At least United Airlines has.  And it’s not completely undeserved.  When you have a sales system designed to sell more than you actually have available, there are going to be frequent problems.

As I was reading airline information on the Internet this week, I found an article on the Business Insider website written by Patrick Smith, who is both an author and an airline pilot.  Smith wrote a book called Cockpit Confidential, and in it created a glossary of commonly misunderstood airline jargon.  It’s all also available on a website maintained by Smith called Ask The Pilot.

Some of the jargon is easily translated.  For instance, I think most people realize that when you hear “flight deck”, they’re talking about the cockpit.  It also doesn’t take a genius to figure out that an “air pocket” is actually a jolt of turbulence.  And some jargon just adds extra words to common terms.  When they tell you to set your computer to the “off position”, they mean turn it off.  And when you’re told to return your seat to the “full upright and locked position”, it really just means upright.

Some jargon isn’t 100 percent clear, but it’s still easy to understand.  “Deplane” means to get off the plane, even though when you’re getting on the plane, they don’t tell you to “plane”.  According to Smith, the only reason they don’t is that they don’t think it sounds right.  “Preboard” is an interesting term, because it means the same thing as “board”.  It’s just getting on the plane.  The people who preboard are just the first ones to board.  You can’t actually get on the plane before you get on the plane.

Some people think “tarmac” means runway.  It doesn’t.  It means asphalt.  Tarmac is short for “tar penetration macadam”, and it was the name of a road surfacing product invented in England in 1901.  The English didn’t use actual tarmac very long, because it tends to soften in hot weather, which would prevent jets from taking off.  The name stuck, but the product didn’t.

When you hear an announcement that starts with the words “at this time”, all that means is “now”.  So “at this time we will begin our descent” means “we’re going to descend now”.  The word “do” shows up in a lot of airline announcements, as in “we do appreciate you choosing Delta” or “we do remind you that smoking is not permitted”.  Adding “do” is a soft way of letting you know that there’s nothing personal about what they’re saying, this is just something they do.

You’ll hear this once in awhile inside the terminal.  “The flight has called in range, and we expect to begin the boarding process in approximately 40 minutes.”  That means the plane you’ll be eventually boarding hasn’t landed yet, but it’s getting closer.  The alternative, of course, would be that the plane has crashed and will not be getting any closer.

If a travel agent or travel website informs you that you’re booking a direct flight, you might assume it’s nonstop from one city to another.  That’s not the case.  A direct flight is just a regularly-scheduled flight.  It could be nonstop, but it might stop at one or more airports before it gets you where you’re going.  The term goes back to the earliest days of commercial travel, when it was very likely for a plane to make unscheduled stops due to weather or other situations.  A direct flight didn’t do that.  By the way, a nonstop flight always eventually does stop.

There are lots of terms you might hear over the plane’s PA system that need more explanation.  An example is “flight attendants, doors to arrival and crosscheck”.  You’ll hear that after the plane has landed and is almost to the terminal.  It’s an order for the flight attendants to disarm the emergency slides.  If you don’t, an emergency slide will inflate the moment you open a door.  And the “crosscheck” part just means that every door has to be checked by two flight attendants.  If you hear “flight attendants, doors to arrival, crosscheck and all call”, it means the pilot wants confirmation that the doors have been checked, so every flight attendant needs to call the flight deck and confirm it.

If the pilot says “We’re just finishing up some last-minute paperwork and should be underway shortly”, that really means that they’re doing paperwork, but it’s generally paperwork that’s taking more time than usual.  It could be someone recording the plane’s weight balance once it’s been loaded with passengers and luggage, it could be the pilot signing a form from air traffic control suggesting a slight route change because of weather, or it could be the pilot’s way of announcing that the ground crew is slower than it should be and that nobody has bothered to sign the log books.

Everybody has heard this announcement.  “We’ve now reached our cruising altitude of flight level three-three-zero”.  As you might expect, it means “this is as high up as we’re going to go”.  And “flight level three-three-zero” means the plane is traveling at 33,000 feet.  And that’s 33,000 feet above sea level, not above the ground below.  If you’re cruising at 33,000 feet and fly over Mount Everest, you’re only going to be 4,000 feet above the summit.

Most people know what a “holding pattern” is.  It’s a simple pattern, because it means you’re circling the airport.  So the pattern is a circle.  Or possibly an oval.  When the pilot says “we’re on final approach into Chicago”, it means that the plane is going to land, and we’re not going to turn right or left anymore before it does, because we’re all lined up with the approaching runway.  But if the flight attendant says you’re on final approach, it means that the thing the pilot calls final approach is going to happen soon, but it hasn’t actually happened yet.

When you’re getting ready to take off, you don’t want the hear the pilot say “There’s a ground stop to all points south”.  That means the air traffic controllers are going to make us wait to take off because there are already too many planes trying to land in, say, Atlanta.  And until that clears up, there’s no reason for us to be in the air.  The ground stop could be caused by “an area of weather”, which is just a storm.

The last one, and my favorite, is the word “equipment”.  If someone tells you there’s an equipment delay or that equipment is being changed out, the word equipment means the plane.  It never means the coffee machine or a seat belt or any other piece of equipment associated with the plane.  A pillow is a piece of equipment, but if there’s something wrong with a pillow, your flight will still be on time.  And I suppose there’s nothing to worry about, except maybe the fact that the entire industry is based on planes, but plane is a word they won’t say.  Maybe it’s just more comforting to hear “equipment delay” instead of “the plane broke again”.  If you hear that, it’ll be in a commercial for Amtrak.