Airline jargon explained

In any industry, there are words that industry insiders use to make everyone else feel confused and inferior. The difference is, with airlines, the insiders are flying the plane and serving you in the cabin, and you’re literally strapped in and powerless to escape.

So here’s an airline-jargon-to-English dictionary, with help from Ask the Pilot and Backpacker Travel.



Doesn’t mean: Grateful Dead fan who enjoys the whole flight due to being stoned.

Does mean: Pilot or flight attendant taking up a passenger seat on your flight.


Doesn’t mean: Gradually straighten out the kinks in your back as you adjust to having more than one centimeter of leg room.

Does mean: Get off the plane. (Why don’t they just say “get off”?)

Disarm doors and cross-check

Doesn’t mean: Take away everyone’s guns; if someone refuses, lean low on your skates and smash them hard in the ribs.

Does mean: Flight attendants should make sure that after we land and open the doors to the plane, the emergency slide won’t automatically inflate, causing an enormous and preventable mess (but one that would probably look pretty funny); then they should second-guess the other flight attendants and make sure they did what they were supposed to do.

Emotional-support animal

Doesn’t mean: Seeing-eye dog

Does mean: A beloved pet with a $10 vest and no special training who is about to be terrified and confined in a small space with unsuspecting humans. Excludes peacocks.

Final boarding call

Doesn’t mean: Yodeling competition.

Does mean: Get on the plane. Where the hell have you been? Also: there is no more overhead bin space left.

Electronic devices must be in airplane mode.

Doesn’t mean: Start talking on the phone.

Does mean: You can stop hiding the fact that you’re texting now.

Entertainment system

Doesn’t mean: A premium movie experience.

Does mean: Ability to see movies you missed in theaters on a tiny screen with poor sound that you would never pay to watch if you weren’t trapped in a metal tube. Also: the reason a big metal box is taking up the space where your feet should be.


Doesn’t mean: Ropes and rappelling gear used to get off the plane when the jetway fails.

Does mean: The airplane (as in “We are waiting for new equipment to arrive.”)


Doesn’t mean: Trivial additional cost.

Does mean: Your tickets is about to get incomprehensibly more expensive. And the reason that your airline is profitable.

First officer

Doesn’t mean: Commander Riker.

Does mean: Spare pilot in case the regular pilot had the fish for dinner.

Flight attendant

Doesn’t mean: Waitress.

Does mean: Overworked, annoyed airline staffer that is the only thing between you and disaster in an emergency, but has had it with the bullshit of the passengers on the last three flights and is now in charge of dealing with you.

Flight deck

Doesn’t mean: Cards the pilots play poker with when they should be flying the plane.

What it means: That place in the front of the plane with all the buttons and dials and shit.

Full, upright, and locked position

Doesn’t mean: Ability to stand fully erect, which you will regain approximately 20 minutes after leaving the plane.

Does mean: Up. (As opposed to, say, down.)

Gate lice

Doesn’t mean: Blood-sucking parasites infesting airports. (Those are called “airline executives.”)

Does mean: Passengers who don’t know where to stand because the boarding process is as confusing as nuclear physics.

Ground stop

Doesn’t mean: When a plane smashes into the fence at the edge of the airport because it overshot the runway.

Does mean: Flights are so backed up it’s not even worth bothering to take off.

Holding pattern

Doesn’t mean: Hidden tendencies of collegiate wrestlers.

Does mean: Flying around burning fuel instead of landing on time; you’ll probably miss your connection.

In-flight meals

Doesn’t mean: Food.

Does mean: Pemmican at a premium.

In the unlikely event of a water landing

Doesn’t mean: You are going to be fine, didn’t you see how Tom Hanks saved everyone in that movie “Sully“?

Does mean: Ridiculous kabuki with an inflatable life vest that is far more likely to scare the crap out of you then save you, since we are flying across Iowa, Montana, and Nevada.


Doesn’t mean: The overly congested road that goes to all the terminals.

Does mean: The damp, dusty, rusty, sweltering or frigid space you traverse as you wait in line to get to the door of the plane while some guy contemplates his mistakes in life as his luggage sits in the aisle blocking everyone.

Lap child

Doesn’t mean: Juvenile from Scandinavia.

Does mean: Toddler without a seat, who is probably sitting on his mom’s lap next to you in a middle seat.


Doesn’t mean: Sleep with another passenger. (See Mile-high club.)

Does mean: The time period during which, as you sit around doing nothing, your luggage is lost.

Last minute paperwork

Doesn’t mean: What you should have done before exiting the lavatory.

Does mean: We’re ready to take off, but some official has to check something we filled out and hasn’t done so yet.

Mechanical problems

Doesn’t mean: One of the seats won’t recline.

Does mean: There’s some indicator light that won’t go off. It’s probably nothing, but there’s a one-in-a-thousand chance that the engine will fail when we get up there. So we’re going to check carefully, and after a delay of about two hours, we’ll get new “equipment” and fly on that.

Middle seat

Doesn’t mean: An airplane seat that you paid for that is neither an aisle nor a window.

Does mean: Battleground space between a linebacker and glutton, or between two people who are in the midst of working out problems in their marriage.

Mile-high club

Doesn’t mean: Airport lounge.

Does mean: A peak sexual experience on a plane, because what enhances romance like doing the nasty on an uncomfortable piece of furniture that literally thousands of other people have farted into?

Motion-sickness bag

Doesn’t mean: Don’t worry, I’ll be fine. Urp.

Does mean: Small and leaky sack that may or may not actually be there if you need it.

Overhead bin

Doesn’t mean: Ample space in which to store your luggage (especially if you are flying Basic Economy).

Does mean: Space designed to be just smaller than standard-sized rollaboard suitcases, into which passengers are attempting to fit sacks the size of dead bodies, guitars, and flowers in flowerpots.


Doesn’t mean: Peace be with you

Does mean: We’re too lazy to say the whole word “passenger.”

Oversold condition

Doesn’t mean: Airline stocks that you shouldn’t have shorted.

Does mean: It’s Russian Roulette time, because there are more passengers than seats.


Doesn’t mean: Get ready to board.

Does mean: Board, unless you are an able-bodied adult, in which case you need to wait for the old people and little kids before you can actually begin boarding.


Doesn’t mean: Eat in a relaxed way at a Passover Seder.

Does mean: A simple button that, when pushed, causes a domino effect, generating massive amounts of pain and heartache throughout the cabin, in exchange for 7.3 degrees of slightly lessened discomfort.

Rough air

Doesn’t mean: An oxymoron. (How can air be rough?)

Does mean: Don’t eat anything, because it’s going to end up one of those little bags in the seat-back pocket.

Seat assignment

Doesn’t mean: Homework to do while on the flight.

Does mean: Seat that you carefully picked out months in advance, accessible to you only because of your exalted status, that you will be asked to give up because a family flying Basic Economy would like to use it so a mom can sit next to her needy toddler, or an elderly couple can sit together and not be able to hear each other over the drone of the engines.


Seat-back pocket

Doesn’t mean: Rear pocket on a pair of jeans.

Does mean: A space too narrow to store your laptop, but bulky enough to take up the last, most-needed inch of knee space, filled with debris from the last passenger, sharp items that will require you to get a tetanus shot, useless magazines to be read only in moments of sheer desperation, and motion-sickness bags that may not have been used before. Also; where you will leave your tablet or mobile phone by mistake, turning the rest of your trip into a disaster.

Seating class: Basic Economy

Doesn’t mean: Viable way to fly inexpensively.

Does mean: A ticket guaranteeing maximum misery, along with fees that will render any discounts moot.

Seating class: Premium Economy

Doesn’t mean: Better seat than economy.

Does mean: Normal economy seating (circa 2001) at a higher cost.

Seating class: Business Class

Doesn’t mean: First class.

Does mean: Vastly more expensive seating intended to leave you jealous of actual first-class passengers.

Seating class: First Class

Doesn’t mean: You are better than other people.

Does mean: Vastly more expensive seating intended to leave you jealous of people on private jets.

Status: Gold

Doesn’t mean: You fly enough to receive any privileges worth telling anyone about.

Does mean: You’re one step better than dirt.

Status: Platinum

Doesn’t mean: You’re somebody special.

Does mean: You can look down on Gold with disdain as you walk past the people with actual upgrades in First Class.

Status: Executive Platinum/1K

Doesn’t mean: We will not drag you off the plane or kill your puppy, even if you are flying United.

Does mean: You are treated like royalty while flying, but your family has forgotten what you look like.

Tampering with, disabling, or destroying the lavatory smoke detector

Doesn’t mean: The natural reaction to being cooped up in a plane for five hours.

Does mean: Vandalism. I mean, be serious. Why call out the smoke detector? Is it legal to tamper with, disable, or destroy the seat in front of you? The overhead bin? The flight attendant? Can we agree that vandalism is just not ok in general?


Doesn’t mean: An Apple computer for smokers.

Does mean: Vast expanse of pavement on which, somehow, planes are always waiting for other planes to get out of the way.

We know you have a choice when flying

Doesn’t mean: We know you have a choice when flying

Does mean: After 29 airline mergers, we’re the only airline flying this route and you are stuck with us.

Wheels-up time

Doesn’t mean: When you will actually take off.

Does mean: An idle prediction of when you will actually take off.


Doesn’t mean: Internet access so you can go on Facebook and write “I’m posting this from an airplane! :-)”

Does mean: A nostalgic throwback to the dial-up experience and speeds of 1996 at $29.99 per flight.

Got more? Add ’em in the comments.

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