In this article, we’ll be explaining all the terms that you need to know about airports and airline travel in general. If you’re a frequent traveler, chances are that you might not even know all of these terms. Plus, a lot of them are used in the wrong context, and over here, we’ll be breaking down their correct usage. In this airport terminology guide, we’ll cover everything there is to know – from booking flights to airplane-specific terms.
Booking Flights (Purchasing Airline Tickets)
A domestic flight means a flight that starts and ends in the same country, with no stops in other countries along the way. Domestic flights are usually much quicker and they’ll have fewer security checks along the way.
An international flight means a flight that takes off from one country and lands in another one. These flights are more complicated because passengers need to go through Customs and Immigration in the arrival country.
A direct flight refers to a flight that flies directly from one destination to another one, with no connections in the middle. A direct flight could include a refueling stop if it’s too long, but passengers won’t be able to exit the plane during this time. Direct flights are usually faster, but they’re more expensive than connecting flights.
A non-stop flight is very similar to a direct flight – it flies directly from one destination to another one with no connections in the middle. The only difference between a direct flight and a non-stop one is that non-stop flights won’t even stop to refuel. The airplane will take off from the starting airport and land only at the final destination.
A connecting flight refers to a flight that involves at least three airports. To get from the starting airport to the destination one, the airplane will stop in one or more airports somewhere along the way. Passengers will need to get off the plane there and wait for several hours for the next one. Connecting flights may include flights from multiple airlines as well. Usually, connecting flights take longer, but they’re also cheaper.
Layover is a term that’s used for connecting flights. It refers to any of the connections along the way. As an example, you could say that you’re flying from California to New York, and you’ll have a layover in Dallas (where the plane will be stopping in the middle). During layovers, passengers need to exit the aircraft and wait in the transit area for the next flight. Layovers may last anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours.
A stopover is a very similar term to a layover – it refers to the connections in connecting flights. The only difference is that stopovers are longer. There is no specific time limit when a layover becomes a stopover, but usually, airlines refer to stopovers when they’re talking about overnight connections (you have to spend the night in the airport waiting for the next flight).
A transfer is another similar term to a layover because it also refers to the connections in connecting flights (when you’re transferring from one plane to another). The only difference is that “transfer” is usually used when talking about very short layovers, usually 2 hours or less. That said, this isn’t followed by everyone, and some people use “transfer” as a synonym to “layover”.
Transit is a very similar term to a transfer because it also refers to short connections in connecting flights. The only difference is that when you’re transiting, you’re exiting and entering the same airplane, but when transferring, you’re entering a different airplane. For transits, usually, the same airline ticket is used.
Split ticket refers to connecting flights when each part of the flight is bought separately on different tickets. Sometimes buying a combined ticket from a third-party provider (or an airline), which has all of the flights in a single booking, is more expensive than buying a ticket for each of these flights yourself.
An interline agreement is another term that’s related to connecting flights. Airlines group together and form interline agreements, which allow each airline participating to sell tickets for other airlines in their connecting flights. For example, if you’re buying a connecting flight from American Airlines, and a part of this connecting flight is operated by United, then probably United has an interline agreement with American Airlines. This is better for passengers because they can purchase everything on a single ticket. Interline agreements also apply to checked luggage. If two airlines have interline agreements, then on connecting flights your checked luggage will automatically be transferred to the other airline during the layover, which means that you won’t have to do it yourself.
Onward Ticket / Onward Flight
An onward ticket means a booking with two or more international flights. Some countries require all incoming travelers to have onward flights, which basically shows proof that they are intending of leaving the country eventually. For example, if you’re flying from New York to London and after a week you’d be returning back from London to New York, it would be considered an onward flight. You could also not return to New York, and fly anywhere else, as long as it isn’t in England, and it would still be considered an onward flight.
Outbound / Outward Flight
Outward (or outbound) flight refers to bookings with return flights included in them, and it refers to the first flight. For example, if you’re flying from New York to Paris and after two weeks returning the same way, the outward (outbound) flight is from New York to Paris.
Inbound Flight / Return Flight
Inbound (other called return) flight is used when talking about bookings with return flights included in them, and it refers to the second flight. For example, if you’re flying from New York to Paris and after two weeks returning the same way, the inbound (return) flight is from Paris to New York.
A Leg of the Flight
When we’re talking about “legs of flights”, we’re talking about specific flights on connecting flights. For example, for a flight from Barcelona to New York with a connection in London, the first leg of the flight would be Barcelona – London, and the second leg from London to New York.
Long-Haul flights just mean very long flights, usually 8 hours or more. All trans-Atlantic (crossing the Atlantic Ocean) and trans-Pacific (crossing the Pacific Ocean) flights are considered long-haul flights.
Checking in online means finalizing your booking through the airline’s website or app, before arriving at the airport. For every booking that you purchase, you’ll need to check-in online (or at the airport), and during this process, you reserve a specific seat on the airplane and get a boarding pass, which you’ll need to print before arriving at the airport. Online check-in usually opens 24 hours – several weeks before the flight, and it’s cheaper to check-in online than to check-in at the airport.
Boarding passes are essentially printed (or electronic) airline tickets. Passengers can get them after checking in online or checking in at the airport. They show the passenger’s personal details and flight details, including the flight number and the correct seat.
Hidden City Ticketing
Hidden city ticketing refers to purchasing a connecting flight, and internationally missing the last leg of the flight. Sometimes, purchasing a connecting flight and only flying the first part of the flight is cheaper than purchasing a direct flight.
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Frequent Flyer Points / Miles
People who participate in airline advantage programs accumulate frequent flyer miles (or points) for every mile each flight does. These points can be redeemed for new bookings, upgrades, and other extras.
The flight itinerary refers to the whole process of getting from one point to another. This includes all flights you’ll be taking, any taxis, trains, buses, or airport shuttles, and hotel bookings.
Each passenger gets a unique booking number whenever they purchase a new flight, and it’s usually sent over email. It’s used for checking-in and any other places where the airline needs to understand which booking you’re talking about specifically.
Each flight gets assigned a different flight number, which can be found in your booking or your boarding pass. It’s used to understand which terminal and gate each flight is departing from or arriving to. Flight numbers and their according gates are usually displayed on screens inside airports.
When booking a flight, sometimes airlines will offer travel insurance. Some countries require all travelers to have one and some not. Even if they aren’t required, you should get travel insurance, which will do many things but most importantly cover any medical expenses if anything goes wrong during your vacation.
Airlines usually offer passengers the option to pre-select their seats when checking in for an additional fee. This will let you choose which seat specifically you want to get. All other passengers will get assigned random seats.
Baggage / Luggage
When talking about air travel, baggage or luggage means all the bags that passengers are taking with them on the flight. This may include suitcases, backpacks, trunks, totes, duffel bags, purses, instrument cases, sporting equipment, and anything that’s within the right size restrictions.
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Luggage allowance refers to the size and weight requirements for luggage. Each airline has different size and weight restrictions, and they’re usually different for different types of luggage (checked luggage, carry-ons, and underseat luggage).
Checked luggage is the largest and heaviest type of luggage that passengers can bring, which is handed over to the airline employees at the airport, and it’s then stored on the plane in the cargo area. Usually, it’s a paid service and passengers need to pay 20-50$ for each checked bag. Although the size and weight restrictions differ between airlines, usually checked luggage needs to be under 62 linear inches (height + depth + width) and under 50 or 70 lbs.
Hand luggage is all luggage that passengers are allowed to bring on the plane, including carry-ons and underseat luggage.
A carry-on is a larger type of hand luggage, and airlines usually allow each passenger to bring one free of charge. Carry-ons need to be stored in the overhead compartments on airplanes, and most commonly, they need to be under 22 x 14 x 9 inches in size.
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Personal Item / Underseat Luggage
Personal items (other called underseat luggage) are a smaller type of hand luggage, and each passenger is usually allowed to bring one free of charge. Personal items need to be stored under the passenger seats in front of each passenger, which means that they’re the most accessible type of luggage. The size and weight restrictions differ very heavily for them between different airlines, but most commonly they need to be under 16 x 12 x 6 inches in size.
Oversized / Overweight Luggage
Oversized luggage refers to luggage over the size limits and overweight luggage over the weight limits. Oversized/overweight hand luggage usually needs to be checked in for additional check-in fees, and oversized/overweight checked luggage sometimes is allowed, but for very expensive fees, ranging between 100-300$ for each bag.
Due to potential security threats, the 3-1-1 rule limits the number of liquids each passenger is allowed to bring on the plane in their hand luggage. The 3-1-1 rule stands for “3.4 oz, 1 quart-sized bag, 1 person”, and it basically means the following: In hand luggage, each passenger has to store all liquids and gels in bottles no larger than 3.4 oz (100 ml), all of them must be stored in 1 quart-sized, transparent bag, and each passenger can have only 1 bag. This bag of liquids, other called “toiletry pouch”, needs to be taken out of the bag for separate screening when going through security.
Tip: Instead of getting a new Ziploc for your toiletries for every new flight, get a dedicated, transparent toiletry pouch.
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When talking about baggage tags, usually people are referring to two things. The first one is personal baggage tags, which contain personal information about the passenger. Anyone can choose to attach them to their luggage in case it gets lost. The other one is luggage labels (or luggage stickers), which airlines attach to all checked bags whenever they’re checked in. These labels include information about who the bag belongs to and where is it heading.
Baggage handling refers to moving checked luggage from the airport check-in desks to the airplane, and when the plane lands, unloading luggage and getting it to the baggage claim area. It’s done by the baggage handlers and transporting it on various luggage conveyor belts.
Navigating the Airport
Large airports are usually split into multiple terminals, sometimes even upwards of 4-6 different terminals. Each terminal has all the facilities needed to operate individually. You can find out the right terminal for your flight by checking your booking confirmation or looking up the flight number on the airport’s website.
Gate number refers to the exact location within the airport where your flight is departing from. Each flight departs and arrives at a different gate. Gates are numbered and usually, each airport terminal contains about 20-100 gates in total.
Pier / Concourse / Satellite
Piers, Concourses, and Satellites are parts of airport terminals, and each one houses about 5-20 different airport gates. It’s just a way for airports to split their terminals into smaller pieces, so it’s easier for the passengers to find their right gates. Usually, each airport terminal has about 2-10 different piers/concourses/satellites, and they’re numbered with letters, such as A, B, C, and so on. When you find out which gate your flight departs from, you need to find out which pier/concourse/satellite it’s located in, and follow the directions within the airport.
You’ll usually find check-in desks right after you enter the airport. Passengers who haven’t checked-in online need to check in at the check-in desks. They’re also used for checked luggage – passengers who have checked luggage need to go to the check-in desks and hand it over to the airline employees. Check-in desks usually open 2-4 hours before the flight departure.
Luggage Drop-Off Points
Some airports also have dedicated luggage drop-off points, which are useful for people who have checked luggage, but who’ve already checked in online. That way they don’t need to wait in the long lines at the check-in desks.
Security is the part of the airport where all passengers are screened for dangerous and prohibited goods. Passengers go to security once they’ve gotten their boarding passes and dropped off their checked luggage. Only passengers with valid boarding passes are let through. During security, passengers need to go through screening machines and pass their luggage through x-ray scanners. After going through security, passengers enter the international, duty-free area of the airport.
Baggage claim is the area of the airport where passengers can receive their checked luggage after landing.
Conveyor Belt / Baggage Carousel
Checked luggage is transferred through airports on a giant maze of conveyor belts, which removes the need for employees to carry it by hand. When talking about conveyor belts and baggage carousels specifically, usually airports are talking about the baggage claim area. Over there, all checked bags from a single flight are put on a single, spinning carousel, and the passengers can pick their own bags from them.
Arrivals is an area in the airport accessible by the general public, where passengers arrive after leaving planes that recently landed, and where other people can come and meet them.
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Departures is the area of the airport which deals with outgoing flights. It contains check-in desks, baggage drop-off desks, security, gates, and the transit area. When you arrive at an airport for an upcoming flight, you need to go to departures.
Lost Baggage is the part of the airport that deals with lost, damaged, delayed, and missing luggage.
Customs and Immigration
Customs and Immigration is a part of the airport, where passengers arriving from international flights are screened. The customs officers look for any goods that are prohibited from entering the country, illegal items, and any goods that the customer might have to pay a tax on.
Airport lounges are luxury areas of the airport, and they’re only accessible by people participating in frequent flyer programs or for high entrance fees. Passengers can spend their time there waiting for upcoming flights. Airport lounges are usually equipped with showers, fine dining, sometimes even separate rooms for sleeping, massage chairs, and similar extras.
Landside is the part of the airport that’s accessible by the general public. It includes everything up to security, including check-in desks, baggage drop-off points, ticket counters, info desks, and arrivals.
Airside/ Transit Area / Secure Area
Airside (other called transit or secure area) is the international, duty-free area of the airport. Passengers need to go through security to enter this area, which is why it’s also sometimes called a secure area. Often on connecting flights, passengers won’t need to exit the airside transit area, because this would mean that they’d need to get additional paperwork for entering the layover country.
When talking about duty-free items, we’re talking about items that are purchased from the duty-free shops in the airside transit area of the airport. They’re called “duty-free” because this area is considered international, so no additional taxes have to be paid to governments, which makes them slightly cheaper. You can bring duty-free items on board the flight and they’re excluded from the 3-1-1 rule.
An international airport has all the facilities needed for arriving and departing international flights. This usually just means that the airport has Customs and Immigration facilities and that their staff (sometimes) are trained to speak multiple languages.
A domestic airport is an airport that only accepts domestic flights. It doesn’t have any customs and immigration facilities.
Short-checking baggage is related to connecting flights. Most commonly on connecting flights with layovers, checked luggage is automatically routed to the final destination without the passenger needing to do anything. But sometimes, especially on very long layovers, the passenger might want to access their checked luggage during the layover, and that’s where short-checking your luggage comes in. When checking in your luggage, you can ask for the employee at the check-in desk to short-check your bag, which means that you will receive it when you land at the layover airport.
Checking Baggage to Final Destination
Checking baggage to the final destination is a term that’s used when talking about connecting flights. It means that checked luggage will automatically be sent over to the final destination and you won’t be able to access it during the layover.
Rechecking baggage is also related to connecting flights and layovers. Sometimes, when you land in the layover country, you’ll have to pick up your checked luggage from a carousel, go through customs, and recheck it again for the next part of the flight at the check-in counters. This whole process is called rechecking luggage.
Moving Sidewalk (Moving Walkway)
Moving sidewalks, other called moving walkways are used in large airports to speed up the time it takes for passengers to arrive at their gates. Because airports are so large, it often takes 20-30 minutes to get to your gate, which is why airports use moving sidewalks, which essentially are long, vertical escalators, or extra-long treadmills.
TSA stands for Transport Security Administration, and it’s the main airport security agency in airports within the United States. Over there, TSA is used as a synonym for “Security”, because they’re the agency that’s in control of security screening.
TSA PreCheck / Global Entry
TSA PreCheck and Global Entry are both paid programs used by frequent travelers. By participating, passengers can wait in shorter, expedited lines at the security, and take off fewer items when going through the scanners.
FAA stands for Federal Aviation Administration, and it’s the main airline regulator in the United States.
IATA stands for International Air Transport Association and they’re the main airline regulator worldwide. They govern about 80% of the total fights worldwide.
Escort / Gate Pass
An escort or gate pass is a special document that gives access to someone to enter the secure airside area of the airport, to accompany a minor, the elderly, or a person with special needs. They’re usually issued by airlines or airports.
Import Tax (Customs Duty, Tariff)
Import tax, other called customs duty or import tariff, is the tax that sometimes passengers need to pay for importing duty-free items. When passengers go through Customs and Immigration, the officers look at all the items each passenger is bringing into the country. If they’re over specific limits (different for each country, but, for example, 10 bottles of perfume or strong spirits), the officers will ask the passenger to declare them and pay Customs tax (usually, 5-30%).
An airport shuttle is usually a taxi, minivan, or bus that offers a shared ride from the airport to the nearest city center. They’re usually cheaper than hiring a taxi or Uber, but more expensive than using public transport.
The runway is a large stretch of tarmac, where the airplane lands / takes off from.
Airspace means all the air directly above a certain country. You might hear the pilot say “We’re now entering China’s airspace”, which just means that you’re flying directly above China.
Turbulence means a sudden shift in the airflow, which makes the airplane feel like it’s being shaken around. It’s completely normal, and when the pilot announces that some turbulence is to be expected, the seatbelt sign will turn on, and all passengers will have to fasten their seatbelts.
Emergency Exit Seats
Emergency exit seats refer to the row of seats directly next to the emergency exits. Passengers usually prefer these seats, because they offer much more legroom.
Take-off refers to the airplane taking off from the tarmac and starting to fly. When the pilot announces “prepare for take-0ff” expect more shaking than usual, and everyone must be seated during take-off.
Boarding refers to passengers boarding the airplane.
Overhead compartments refer to the enclosed storage compartments directly above passenger heads, where carry-ons need to be stored. They must remain closed during take-off, landing, and turbulence, and passengers are able to access them once again when the seatbelt sign turns off.
In-Flight Entertainment refers to the entertainment systems on airplanes. Usually, it’s just a built-in screen at the back of each seat, where you can watch movies and TV shows, read the news, listen to music, and so on.
First / Business Class
Passengers usually are split into multiple classes, with the lowest class being economy, then premium economy, then business class, and then first class. Each class above economy gets better upgrades, such as more leg-room (even horizontal beds), better entertainment systems, finer dining, and so on.
Cargo hold refers to the area of the airplane below the main deck, where all the checked luggage is stored.
Cabin refers to the area of the airplane accessible by the passengers, where they’re seated and their hand luggage is stored.
Cockpit refers to the pilot’s cabin at the front of the aircraft.