Transit Glossary: Aviation Terminology

Everybody loves taking planes.  They fly high above the ground and into the friendly skies.  They travel at hundreds of miles per hour.  They travel to may faraway places.  They also carry more people and luggage than ever before.  Here are some commercial aviation terms used by plane fans and industry insiders alike.

  • taxi:  Planes must be parked at gate in order to board and discharge passengers.  Before they take take off, they must travel along a plane roadway, so to speak, to get to the spot on the runway where they will take off.  They are usually going at a very slow rate of speed relative to normal operations.
  • aircraft:  The accepted standard term for an airplane, whether it’s a small propeller plane or a large commercial jet.
  • turbulence:  The bumps you feel when the plane is flying in the sky and hits air pockets that are unstable for a plane to fly through.
  • winglets:  Small apparatus at the tips of the wings of commercial jets installed or built into the wing for better performance and fuel economy.
  • flailing:  Aircraft must gently land onto the runway without the fear of damaging delicate landing gear and thus raising the risk of a crash.  While the plane is landing, losing altitude, the pilot of the plane will temporarily hold his altitude and then plant the landing gear onto the runway for a much smoother landing than pilots that simply bring the plane down.  So it’s more of a down, hold, down technique, most helpful for commercial jets due to the amount of passengers and luggage that may shift violently with a hard landing.
  • wide-body jet:  These are the big boys in the commercial aviation industry, jets that have large seating arrangements such as 2x3x2 as found in the Boeing 767 or the 3x4x3 found in the Airbus A380.
  • narrow-body jet:  These are the smaller of the commercial jets, usually with a 3×3 or 2×2 seating configuration.  The most common 3×3 aircraft are the Boeing 737 and the Airbus A320; the most common 2×2 aircraft are the Embraer 175 and 190.  Even smaller commercial jets include the Embraer 145 which has a 2×1 arrangement.
  • regional jet:  These are even smaller than a typical narrow-body jet, usually for charter and shuttle flights.  These usually have 2×1 or 1×1 seating arrangements.  These might include the De Haviland Dash 8-Q300 and the Bombardier CRJ700.
  • hub-and-spoke:  The model for airline schedules that the mainstream domestic carriers use to fly more efficiently than other carriers.  The idea is that major carriers like American Airlines and U.S. Airways choose certain large airports as hubs for their operations so that they can fly from those hubs to other cities compared to flying from city to city almost randomly.  It allows the airlines to fly their planes from their hubs as opposed to flying them between almost every city pair imaginable.  For passengers to fly US Airways from New York to Memphis, for example, one would have to fly from LaGuardia to Charlotte, a US Airways hub, then fly from Charlotte to Memphis, as opposed to another airline such as United which may have a non-stop between New York and Memphis.  Sometimes if another major domestic airline has that route as a non-stop, it is because either one of the two cities is a major hub for the carrier.
  • tail number:  This is an identification number that every aircraft wears so it can be identified by air traffic control, mechanics, airport and airline crew members, and even plane enthusiasts.  Each airline identifies their planes differently, so not all numbers will have the same meaning.  The number is a registration with its host country.  An example of a tail number would be “N536JB” for a JetBlue Airbus A320 that had landing gear failure upon landing in Los Angeles about 10 years ago.
  • fuselage:  This is the main body of the aircraft that carries passengers, luggage, and/or cargo.
  • galley:  The kitchen or food service preparation part of the plane.  This is where flight attendants prepare the food and drinks to serve to passengers when the plane reaches cruising altitude.
  • cruising altitude:  The optimal point in the sky where a plane can level out and smooth out the ride for its passengers.  For smaller commercial aircraft, this might be 20,000-30,000 feet off the ground, while for larger commercial jets, it might be 30,000-42,000 feet.  Usually, food service can be performed and passengers are free to move about the cabin of the plane.
  • holding pattern:  This is a path given to pilots by air traffic control which basically tells the pilot to circle around an airport or major city until it is deemed safe to land.  Sometimes, if there are delays with departures at a given airport and no runway space is available for a plane to land, departures are given priority to send them on their way and to make space for planes trying to land.
  • flight path:  Every aircraft assigned to a given route has to follow a specific flight path in order to travel between cities safely.  There are reference points in the sky that air traffic controllers use to direct planes to their destination or around potential turbulent spots and that pilots use to give reference to how far they have traveled and where to fly and not fly in accordance to regulations.  A flight path might route a plane from New York’s LaGuardia Airport to Toronto’s Pearson Airport via Albany’s airspace or via New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Syracuse, New York’s airspace.  The latter might be chosen due to noise regulations in place by Albany’s airport authority, although the Albany route might be faster.

If there are any more I forgot, I will surely add to this post.  Stay tuned…

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