Airport Lingo : Ramp vs Apron vs Tarmac

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.


Happy Flying!




  1. Back in my youth tarmac was simply a generic term for anything airside. Much like Hoover was a generic term for vacuum cleaner. This was of course in the UK.

  2. You’re blowing my mind here. Do you realize how many blog posts and videos I have to go back and revise now? Apron smapron. ;c)

  3. Under training to be a C.C(I hope so) . I was in a study of terminology and found this blog. And it is mind boggling, really help me out of those study (Including this ramp/stand/tarmac/apron)

  4. In the U.S. airline industry, when we refer to the area where we park the airplane, we always call it the “ramp.” In fact, at large airports, that area we call the ramp is typically controlled by a non-FAA staffed (but FAA approved) facility which provides clearance for us to push back from the gate and start our engines and begin our taxi for departure, and also our clearance to taxi onto the ramp and park the airplane after landing. The official term at most of these airports across the U.S. is “ramp” or “ramp control” and this term comes directly from the FAA approved charts we use to find our way around the airport. The official term internationally is “apron” per ICAO standards, and in the FAA’s Aeronautical Information Manual (the bible for correct terminology and phraseology), in the glossary under “ramp”, it reads “see apron” as a nod to the international standard.

    So when I fly to London, after landing and taxi-in, I call “apron control” control for parking. In Chicago, I call “the ramp.”

    If I said “ramp” in London, they’d politely correct me. If I said “apron” In Chicago, they’d ignore my non-standard U.S. phraseology and tell me to park the jet and have a nice day.

    If I said “tarmac” anywhere, I’d be buying everyone’s dinner that night. It’s like my sweet old grandma who calls any road with a speed limit over 30 a “turnpike.” I do get a kick out of how the media seems to pass this archaic term (we’re talking pre cold-war here) on to each new generation of reporters with authority.

    It has been this way for the duration of my 30 year flying career.

  5. When I used to park my aircraft. It was called a PAN ?
    I never asked why. Questions like this can attract too much BS. without ever learning the actuall answer.
    If you know the real meaning please give me a shout.

  6. Thanks for the explanation. Unfortunately “Tarmac” is the preferred go-to term with which the corporate media are enthralled. So as an aviation chart maker and technical writer for over 45 years, I get annoyed by their use of the word. Tarmac is nothing more than tar and macadam (tarmacadam) which by definition is “1) a pavement constructed by spraying or pouring a tar binder over layers of crushed stone and then rolling, or 2) a material of tar and aggregates mixed in a plant and shaped on the roadway” (Meriam-Webster’s).
    One correction: The FAA actually does refer to ramps in much of their documentation, including in NOTAMs as well as communications frequencies. Just “ramp” on search

  7. Tarmac, a nickname for tarMacAdam, is a predecessor of Asphalt(um) Aggregate Concrete, commonly called “asphalt” after the fraction of petroleum just lower than tar.
    MacAdam is a method of building pavement. Modern highways are to a considerable degree built on top of MacAdamized crushed rock base. Coarse rock like railway ballast is laid down on the clay base. Finer crushed rock goes on top of that, and even finer topping that. Asphalt concrete in two or three layers goes on. Waterproofing sheet is commonly put down before the final topping of asphalt concrete.
    Large airliners may weigh as much as 400 tons loaded and fueled. They require very strong pavement to support them without cracking and deteriorating rapidly
    Portland cement aggregate concrete reinforced with steel mesh and rebar is preferred for frequent use by airplanes such as Boeing 747-800

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