Plane Spoken

Friday February 14, 2014 / Posted by Madhu U.

All industries use specialized jargon that’s indecipherable to the outside world. The airline industry is no different. In fact, some might say the airline industry is more prone to using dense jargon than most. To help you understand this business we love, we’ve put together a by-no-means comprehensive list of some of the more interesting terms we use every day.

Communicating Inflight: An aircraft can’t just take off and fly to its destination. It must be guided along the way, and our pilots and in-flight crew must be kept informed of weather and flight conditions on their route.

  • Air Traffic Control (ATC): The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employs controllers who not only clear an aircraft for take off and landing at airports but also keep in radio contact with pilots en route to ensure their flight paths are free of traffic.
  • Aircraft Communications and Reporting System (ACARS): This is a digital datalink with which our operations center stays in touch with pilots en route. ACARS can be used to help our inflight team take care of our guests. If our social media team on the ground sees an urgent  tweet about something a guest needs in flight, ACARS can be used to send a message to the Flight Deck.
  • Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B): Part of the FAA’s air traffic management modernization program, NextGen, ADS-B is a GPS-based system that would replace today’s ground-based radar systems for locating aircraft and transmitting that information to the air traffic controllers.
  • Notice to Airmen (NOTAM): The relevant government agency can send NOTAMs to pilots to alert them to any weather or wind conditions they should be aware of en route.

Power: Most of you know that the majority of today’s commercial aircraft are powered by jet engines (more specifically, high-bypass turbofan engines. Each of our Airbus A320-family aircraft has two). But where does the power for the lights and the Red ™ inflight entertainment system come from when the aircraft is on the ground? And just how do you start those high-bypass turbofan engines (hint: it is not an automatic starter!).

  • Ground Power Unit (GPU): When one of our aircraft is at the gate, it’s plugged into ground power supplied by the airport. This allows us to keep the lights on, power up the Red system and keep the air conditioning system running.
  •  Auxiliary Power Unit (APU): When the aircraft is disconnected from the GPU, a small turbine engine mounted in the tail turns on and takes over to keep the electrical system, air conditioning and other accessories running until the engines start. And that’s actually the APU’s most important job. Bleed air from the APU starts the Airbus A320 engines, and you’ll hear the first engine spool up as the aircraft is pushed back from the gate.  (The second engine is started with bleed air from the first engine after it starts running.)

On The Ground: We use a few specialized terms to describe what happens an aircraft on the ground between flights.

  • Turn: The time between flights is called the “turn”. After guests from the incoming flight deplane, the aircraft is cleaned, catered and readied for the guests on its next flight.
  • Remain Overnight (RON):  Early morning flights usually require an aircraft to RON. After the last inbound flight of the day, the aircraft is cleaned and prepped and either stays at the gate for the next morning’s flights or is taken elsewhere on the airfield (a “hard stand”) before its first flight of the day.

Our Teammates: We call the people who work at Virgin America our “teammates.” And we differ from other airlines in what we call our guest-facing teammates.

  • Inflight Teammate (ITM): We call our flight attendants ITMs, and each of our flights is staffed with three ITMs, led by the ITL, or Inflight Team Leader, a position analogous to the purser/lead/in-charge on other airlines.
  • Guest Services Teammate (GST): At Virgin America, we call our airport-based teammates, the people you meet at the check-in counters and at the gate, GSTs.

Supply and demand: If you remember nothing else from Econ 101, you probably remember the law of supply and demand. The airline industry has its own way of measuring these, but the basic tenets are the same.

  • Available Seat Mile (ASM): Often referred to as an airline’s capacity, this is the basic metric of supply used in the industry. It translates into one seat flown one mile, so an aircraft with 10 seats flown 10 miles will produce 100 ASMs. (Outside of North America, this is usually ASK, or available seat kilometer).
  • Revenue Passenger Mile (RPM): If your first thought was revolutions per minute, you wouldn’t be wrong, but in the case of the airline industry, if ASMs are supply, RPMs represent demand. This unit measures one revenue passenger transported one mile. Again, outside of North America, this is often RPKs, or revenue passenger kilometer.
  • Load Factor: This represents the percentage of available seats that are filled with revenue-paying passengers (guests). In order to calculate system-wide load factors, the total number of RPMs is divided by the total number of ASMs.
  • Passenger Revenue per Available Seat Mile (PRASM): Sometimes called “unit revenue,” this is calculated by dividing revenue by ASMs and is usually expressed in traffic releases in terms of percentage change year-over-year.

So those are some of the common terms and acronyms airlines use daily. Tell us in the comments below what industry terms you’d like to see us define in a future post.