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What air traffic jargon actually means

Tuning in to air traffic control, we decode the mystifying language of the skies, from call signs to acronyms

Published 30 Sept 2018, 09:00 BST, Updated 15 Jul 2021, 11:19 BST

Weird words

Air traffic control uses a unique blend of specialised words and phrases to avoid misunderstandings with people whose first language isn't English.

Aviation acronyms decoded

Instrument Landing System

What aircraft use to guide them to touchdown on final approach.

Ground Movement Control

One of the control positions in the tower, it looks after aircraft moving around the taxiways.

Instrument Flight Rules

Adopted when flying with reference to instruments (almost all commercial traffic), not Visual Flight Rules, the norm for private pilots flying with reference to the surface.


One of the ground holding area names at Heathrow. Each has a theme; this one, for runway 27 Right, is based on planets and moons (other names include Saturn and Titan).

Approach Funnel Deviation Alerting System

Tells air traffic controllers if an aircraft is straying off course on final approach, so they can rectify the situation quickly.

Visual Control Room

A fancy word for the room at the top of the control tower.

Know the lingo

Go around

When a landing can't be completed — often due to a blocked runway or poor weather.


A plane's four-digit code, making it visible on radar — converted to a call sign so controllers can see it in their sector.

Flight level

An aircraft's altitude above a sea level pressure. All planes at high level are on the same setting so they can be separated vertically by at least 1,000ft.


A cabin crew member travelling in a passenger seat.

Call signs: the unique 'nicknames' used to identify different airlines

Shamrock: Aer Lingus

Speedbird: British Airways

Springbok: South African Airways

Eurotrans: DHL

Flying Bulgaria: Bulgaria Air

Jersey: FlyBe

Cactus: America West Airlines

Dynasty: China Airlines

Cedarjet: Middle East Airlines

Firebird: Cargo Logic

Channex: Jet2

Bealine: British European Airlines

Clipper: Pan American World Airways

Indonesia: Garuda

Bohai: Tianjin Airlines

Are you smart enough?

GCSE maths and English at grade 9-4 (A*-C): the minimum required qualifications to qualify for air traffic control training. Inspired? NATS (National Air Traffic Services) is currently recruiting.

Published in the October 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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