March 30, 2017

Misused Aviation Terms, Part 1: Airlines and Accidents

Major? Regional? People still confuse these. (Photo by  Moose135, All Rights Reserved, via NYCAviation Photo Hangar)
Major? Regional? People still confuse these. (Photo by Moose135, All Rights Reserved, via NYCAviation Photo Hangar)
I regularly see aviation terminology in news reporting and in general conversation among fellow aviation geeks that is misused or misunderstood. There are some words and terms that are not colloquial, but instead are official, technical terms that are defined by official agencies or even federal regulations. Below are some of the most common, broad ones that I have seen misused in the last few weeks.

Major Airline: A major airline is an airline that generates over $1 billion in revenue annually. Socially, people think that only American, Delta and United are the United States’ major airlines, but this is incorrect because the term is clearly defined by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Not only does it also include Alaska, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, Frontier, Virgin America and even Spirit, it can also includes regional airlines and cargo operators that meet that revenue criteria as well.

Legacy Airline: Also often confused by people who think that United, American and Delta are the only legacy airlines, this is defined by any airline that had an existing interstate route system at the time of the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. That means that this also includes Alaska Air and Hawaiian Airlines. That word “interstate” is a vital detail, which is why Southwest Airlines is technically not a legacy carrier, as they did not serve flights outside of Texas until January of 1979.

Regional Airline: This one is misleading, and I wish would be renamed. A regional carrier is one that serves another airline’s scheduled operations via subsidiary or contract beyond that of a charter operation. The term does not apply to small airlines that operate independently within a small geographic region.

Envoy and SkyWest are two regionals that provide airline service that their corresponding major carriers’ (American and Delta, respectively) aircraft fleets would not be desirable or capable of serving. That however, does not mean that they cannot fly their own routes as well. Cape Air is an independent company that operates its own scheduled service in the Northeast U.S., and also operates for United in Micronesia as United Express.

I’ve seen some refer to Alaska and Hawaiian as regional airlines, which could not be further from the truth in any form of even the misunderstood definition. By technical definition, they are not a subsidiary or contracted to operate flight for another major carrier. Furthermore, even by the misunderstood definition, they operate well outside of their implied geographic region — both airlines operate transcontinental routes to multiple cities.

Aircraft Accident: Misuse of this term is frequent and of particular frustration when wanting to avoid sensationalism or unintentional spreading of fear. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) defines an accident as any event between the time that people (passenger or crew) enter an aircraft with the intent of flying until they get off, which results in a serious or fatal injury, damage or failure that structurally affects the aircraft’s performance or strength, or in the aircraft becoming missing or completely inaccessible.

While there are more specific exceptions and criteria on a case by case basis, an aircraft rolling off of a runway with its landing gear still intact and no major injuries is not an accident. Aircraft evacuations that are caused by or do not result in significant aircraft damage or serious injury are also not accidents.

Aircraft Incident: To counter “accident,” it’s less severe little brother is the incident, which ICAO defines as “an occurrence, other than an accident, associated with the operation of an aircraft which affects or could affect the safety of operation.”

Study up! Feel free to send us topics that you’d like us to further expalin in detail next time!

Phil Derner founded NYCAviation in 2003. A lifetime aviation enthusiast that grew up across the water from La Guardia Airport, Phil has aviation experience as a Loadmaster, Operations Controller and Flight Dispatcher. He owns and operates NYCAviation and performs duties as an aviation expert through writing, consulting, public speaking and media appearances. You can reach him by email or follow him on Twitter.

  • Jim Pease

    I cringe every time I hear someone use the term “tarmac”.