This Airport Lingo Will Help You Become Fluent In The Language Of The Sky

The way that airport crew members speak conveys a lot more than you may realize. While some lingo is pure slang, like “deadheads,” other terminology was created to protect lives onboard. An incident in 1977 involved two planes crashing into one another because of miscommunication with air traffic control. For this reason, all major airlines have to use English to communicate, and they must use a certain lingo that’s universal. Read on to learn a bit about the language of the sky.

Let’s Kick The Tires And Light The Fires

A Plane On The Runway
Marcel Kusch/picture alliance via Getty Images
Marcel Kusch/picture alliance via Getty Images

At first, the phrase “Let’s kick the tires and light the fires” sounds like a threat. Most people don’t find a sense of comfort in the idea of a plane on fire. However, if you heard Harry Connick Jr. utter the phrase in the movie Independence Day, you know it’s a positive thing to say.

The phrase is interchangeable with the more common term, “cleared for takeoff.” It’s a spunkier way of saying “let’s go.” So the next time your flight attendant checks to see if you’re bucked in and ready to go, you can tell them to go ahead and kick the tires.

Zulu Time

George Rose/Getty Images
George Rose/Getty Images

When pilots inform the travelers of the time, they always state the time based on whatever time zone they currently occupy. Usually, the pilot will tell passengers the time at takeoff in the zone they’re leaving, and the time at landing in the zone they’ve arrived to.

However, when pilots converse with their coworkers while in flight, they all need to have a universal time zone they can reference. That’s what Zulu time is. Also known as Greenwich Mean Time or GMT, the time is kept by the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and is thereby based on London time.

Some Numbers Are Altered

ERIC PIERMONT/AFP/Getty Images
ERIC PIERMONT/AFP/Getty Images

If you hear a pilot say “tree,” it’s not because he’s dodging a tree or never learned to pronounce his “th” sound. “Tree” means three, “fife” means five, and “niner” means nine. Why “niner” is the only one that became popularized is a mystery.

The adjusted numbers aid in preventing miscommunication while talking through a headset. “Five” and “Nine” can sound very similar over the phone, but a simple mistake like that can have serious consequences when people are flying through the sky.

The NATO Phonetic Alphabet

The Silhouette Of Men Talking In An Airport Window
TOLGA AKMEN/AFP/Getty Images
TOLGA AKMEN/AFP/Getty Images

The NATO phonetic alphabet assigns a short word to all 26 letters of the alphabet. For example, “ABC” would be referred to as “Alpha, Bravo, Charlie.” The system was created to help clarify letters as their being read over a headset.

Since so many letters end in the long “e” sound (B, D, E, G, Z, etc.), many of them sound the same when you can’t see the person’s mouth to determine the first sound they made. It this system, each word is vastly different, so the letters they denote won’t be mistaken.

‘Pan Pan’ Isn’t As Fun To Say As It Sounds

A Member Of Air Traffic Control Talks Into His Headset
JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP/Getty Images
JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP/Getty Images

When something seems off, a pilot might call out a “pan pan” to air traffic control. This strange phrase isn’t a reference to Peter Pan. Rather, it means that something is just shy of an emergency. It’s another way of saying “urgent” or shouting “hey!”

The phrase isn’t just for air control, but also for other pilots. It signals to them to stay quiet so that air control can focus in on what the problem is and determine if an emergency landing needs to happen.

Souls On Board

People Board A Plane Outside
Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Not to be confused with the early 2000s movie Soul Plane, the number of souls on a plane has nothing to do with style. Workers use soul count in order to more accurately determine the number of living humans on the plane.

The reason the phrase is necessary is so that dead bodies that are transported are not counted, as they might be if they said “people” instead. It also ensures that the crew is counted, not just the passengers. This way, in the case of an emergency, a correct number of people impacted by the accident can be assessed.

Feet Wet Vs. Feet Dry

Miguel Candela/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Miguel Candela/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

This term is normally used in military aircraft, so you probably won’t hear it on your commercial flight. However, you wouldn’t be wrong to note that you have “wet feet” while flying over the ocean, and “dry feet” while flying over land.

The phrases are used to indicated to air traffic control that the aircraft is over water, and to inform them when the craft is traveling over land. The reason it’s used in the military is in case the flight enters a combat zone while overseas. Rescue vessels can be sent out to the proper oceanic location.

‘Deadheads’ Aren’t What They Sound Like

Crew Members In At Airport
Anton ButsenkoTASS via Getty Images
Anton ButsenkoTASS via Getty Images

Any crew members who are on a flight but are NOT on duty are “deadheads.” This happens all the time, for multiple reasons. Usually, it has to do with the crew members landing in one place and needing to arrive at a different airport to go home or to start a different shift.

The odd name may refer to feeling “dead” at the end of a workday. Rarely, an airline may even postpone paying customers from their flight so that a deadhead can board instead. However, most often the deadheads catch an empty seat.

‘Air Pockets’ Don’t Sound So Bad

GettyImages-1164341654
ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images
ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images

The word “turbulence” has garnered a negative connotation among those who are afraid of flying. Instead, crew members have taken to the term “air pocket” to denote that shaking is about to happen.

The term seems lighter and less threatening since the word “pocket” usually refers to something small. However, pilots know that wind is wind, and the outcome is the same no matter what you call it. For those who are not as used to being shaken about in a plane, though, the term can be somewhat comforting.

A/C Is Not The Plane’s Air Conditioning

A Flight Attendant Offers Beverages
Robert Alexander/Getty Images
Robert Alexander/Getty Images

The A/C refers quite simply to the aircraft. In fact, air conditioning units in planes are known as “packs,” since A/C is the abbreviation for the plane itself. Next time you’re on a plane, as the flight attendant if everything is okay with the A/C. They will probably give you an unsure look as they try to decipher what you’re talking about.

Another pilot term that has the same abbreviation is an All-Call. This term is used as a directive to the flight attendants. It notifies them all to report to the intercom.

The First Officer Isn’t The First-In-Command

A Pilot and Copilot Converse
Marina LystsevaTASS via Getty Images
Marina LystsevaTASS via Getty Images

This term is counterintuitive. You would think that the first officer would be the pilot, but it’s actually the second pilot, or the co-pilot. Why do they call the second pilot the first officer? The answer is a little confusing.

The first officer is second-in-command. This means that should something happen to the pilot, the co-pilot will take over. It may help to think of them as the first responder in the event of the pilot becoming incapacitated.

Angels In The Sky

A Female Pilot Waves Out An Airplane Window
Europa Press Entertainment/Europa Press via Getty Images
Europa Press Entertainment/Europa Press via Getty Images

If a pilot sees an angel in the sky, it doesn’t mean they’re near death. Quite the opposite, it means they see a carrier rescue helicopter, nicknamed an angel. Since angels are thought to watch over and protect, the name seems fitting.

However, the plural term “angels” has absolutely nothing to do with saving. This term is a unit of measurement. If a pilot says “we’re at 30 angels,” it means the plane has an altitude of 30 thousand feet.

Terms To Express Emotion

Anthony Devlin/Getty Images
Anthony Devlin/Getty Images

There are several ways to express feelings that are not the typical slang you may be used to. The familiar term “attaboy” is great praise from the “air boss,” AKA the head of the air department onboard carrier. However, “bravo zulu” is another way to say good job.

If you’re “beaded up,” it means you’re worried or excited, while “borex” describes a dull exercise. If you “goon up” it just means you messed up. If you have “lost the bubble” it means you’ve become confused.

A Direct Flight Isn’t Nonstop

Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images

A nonstop flight definitely will not have any stops, but a direct flight might. All that the term “direct flight” means is that the flight number remains the same throughout the trip.

The plane behaves like a bus, making a stop or two on the way to your destination where people might be getting off or boarding. It also may make a stop merely to refuel, or to swap to a different plane, in which case passengers will have to get off and reboard.

The Black Box Isn’t Black, Or A Box

A Man Holds Out A Black Box
JULIAN STRATENSCHULTE/AFP/Getty Images
JULIAN STRATENSCHULTE/AFP/Getty Images

The object pictured above is, in fact, a black box. While the name doesn’t seem to make any sense nowadays, the first version that came out back in 1942 was an actual black box. Newer versions are bright orange to make locating them on the plane easier.

These objects record the pilots and obtain data about what’s happening with the plane’s mechanics. You probably won’t hear these objects referred to while in flight, since they’re often referred to afterward when an evaluation is needed. But it’ll look extra impressive if you know this lingo since it isn’t an obvious term.

A ‘Go-Around’ Is Exactly What It Sounds Like

Pilots Prepare For Liftoff
ERIC PIERMONT/AFP/Getty Images
ERIC PIERMONT/AFP/Getty Images

Have you ever been on a flight, and during the descent it felt as though you were flying in circles? You actually may have been. A “go around” is where the pilot will literally circle the sky before landing.

Landing a plane isn’t so easy, especially if any conditions are off. That’s why pilots will sometimes coordinate with air traffic control to take a different approach to land. In this case, the pilots will “go around” in the air to attempt another landing.

Lounge Lizards And Gate Lice

A Woman Sleeps In An Airport
Robert Alexander/Getty Images
Robert Alexander/Getty Images

This pilot slang sounds far grosser than it actually is. “Gate lice” is just a harsh term for the passengers who crowd the gate, eagerly awaiting to board. For those who fly infrequently, it can be easy to forget that people who work in an airport experience flying so often that they’ve lost the excitement you may feel about getting onto the plane.

Lounge Lizards are flight attendants who sleep in the airport overnight. Those who work in airports sometimes are subject to unusual hours that can impact their sleeping patterns.

Dinosaurs And Seniority Rules

Flight Attendants Exit an Escalator
Orhan Akkanat/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Orhan Akkanat/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

If you hear a flight attendant chatting about a dinosaur, it isn’t the elderly they’re referring to. Dinosaurs are the flight attendants who have been in the industry forever. The unfavorable nickname has to do with the bitterness younger flight attendants feel towards them due to seniority rules.

Flight attendants only get paid for the time that they spend in the actual air. So when you’re eager to get going on your flight, rest assured and the flight attendants are just as impatient as you are. Attendants who have been in the industry longer get the longer flights, while newbies are stuck with the short flights and more unpaid transitions.

Jumpseats Vs. Jumpseaters

In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images
In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images

If you are a jumpseater, it means that you are a crew member who needs to hop on a plane that has all its seats full. Thus, you’ll have to either stand around or sit in the jumpseat. The jumpseats are the fold-down chairs that flight attendants sit in when they aren’t catering to the passengers.

The movie Basic Instinct had an infamous scene where actress Sharon Stone is seated in front of policemen who interrogate her. That’s why the jumpseat that faces the passengers is nicknamed the Sharon Stone Jumpseat.

Mayday And Morse Code

ERIC PIERMONT/AFP/Getty Images
ERIC PIERMONT/AFP/Getty Images

Thanks to Hollywood, most will recognize the term “Mayday” as what you yell when the plane’s going down. That isn’t exactly correct, but it is on the right track. Mayday comes from the French “m’aidez” or “m’aider,” meaning “help me.”

It’s used during any kind of emergency. The term was an alternative for “SOS,” which is harder to understand over the radio. However, SOS comes from Morse code, which pilots and air traffic controls also have to be familiar with in case their audio fails.