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August 27, 2009

To Tarmac or Not to Tarmac

Kate Hanni, founder for the Coalition for an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights, talks to CBS news about being "Trapped on the Tarmac"

by Barbara S. Peterson

The notorious overnight stranding of a commuter plane at an airport in Minnesota and a six-hour delay of a plane at Kennedy last week have made a federal "airline passenger bill of rights" seem almost inevitable. Something else that is equally inevitable: another barrage of news stories about "tarmac delays," "stranded on the tarmac" and the like. We have the Department of Transportation's "tarmac delay task force" and House and Senate bills setting out clear requirements for how to handle these "tarmac" holdups. One senator was once moved to decline the verb "to tarmac." Now for the latest, shocking development in this debate: what if this word has been misused all along?

That's what one reader wrote to us recently, after I used the word in one of my posts:

"Can't we please retire the inappropriate word 'tarmac' to specify the place where modern mega-ton air-transport aircraft park?" lamented stepwilk. "There hasn't been a tarred MacAdam surface (named after the 19th-century Scots road engineer, as I remember) in a century, except for the odd lightplane airstrip. A 767 or Airbus A330 would sink through a true tarmac like an ice-road trucker in April."

I hope he also complained to the Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, CBS news, and the countless other media organizations that have ushered "tarmac" into the popular lexicon.

The dictionary defines tarmac as a "tarmacadam road, apron or runway," which doesn't really settle the point. Our critic is correct, though, to say that tarmac is not an industry term of art. I checked with a couple of pilots I know and they agree. "We never use that word," says Jeff Skiles, a pilot with USAirways for 23 years (and if that name sounds familiar--he was also the first officer with "Sully" on flight 1549). "You only see that in the media."

But Skiles also agreed with another point, from our side: We in the media have to communicate often arcane matters to the public and rightly or wrongly, 'tarmac' is widely understood to mean that space between the gate and an active runway. In the current debate, it connotes a place where thousands of passengers have been held hostage under such inhumane conditions that they need a federal law to guarantee decent treatment.

So what would the experts suggest as a substitute? "The terms are ramp, taxiway, and runway," says Skiles. In most of the extreme delays, a plane is parked off to the side, on the ramp. My 20-year-old copy of an industry glossary from the Air Transport Association defines it as "the aircraft parking area on an airport, usually adjacent to the terminal." Ramp, however, isn't a good choice; a ramp, to most people, is a sloped floor or walkway. (ATA's guide makes no mention of tarmac.) Our critic's suggestion: "Call it a hardstand, like the RAF does, if you insist on a Brit-ism..." That raises the painful prospect of headlines like these: "Stuck on the Hardstand!" and Three-Hour Ramp Delay Law Struck Down by Court!"

Sorry guys. Tarmac is here to stay. But let's hold the line at "to tarmac."

Further reading:
* "Surviving the Dreaded Tarmac Delay" (Associated Press, Aug. 26, 2009)
* Five Hours on The Tarmac: Should Congress Step In? (The Middle Seat Terminal, WSJ Blogs)
* "From Paradise to Perdition on the Tarmac" (Wall Street Journal, Apr. 28, 2009)
* We talked to Hanni, too, about what the latest air travel squalor story means for passenger rights (Daily Traveler on CNT)
* On the Fly: The airline industry


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