When you sit in the airport staring out the windows at all the planes parked at their gates what area of the airport are you looking at? The Ramp? The Apron? The Tarmac?
The answer is … not the tarmac. Tarmac, while commonly used as a term to describe where airplanes are parked, is in fact a type of road surface and is the trademark of Tarmac Limited, a British construction company, that produces the “tarmac” used to surface the parking areas of some airports, roadways, parking lots, etc … despite the majority of airport parking areas being paved with concrete.
The official term for the area where aircraft park is in fact, according to the ICAO and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the Apron. The FAA’s Surface Movement Guidance and Control System Advisory AC No: 120-57A defines the Apron as “A defined area on an airport intended to accommodate aircraft for purposes of loading or unloading passengers or cargo, refueling, parking, or maintenance.”
… but if the ICAO and FAA call the area where aircraft are parked, refueled, unloaded, loaded and boarded an Apron, where does the term “Ramp” come from? Ramp is primarily a U.S. term, although universally accepted in the U.S., and used by tower controllers, it is not a term officially used by the FAA.
The term ‘Ramp‘ traces its roots back to the days of seaplanes when there literally was a ramp from the water to the terminal parking area. The historical usage of the term ramp has not left the lexicon of airport terminology in the U.S., despite the official change in terminology.
If you want to watch planes on the Tarmac you need to visit a limited number of airports in the United Kingdom and stare at the pavement below the wheels … everywhere else, you’re looking out over the Apron.