Where the Planes Park: Ramp vs. Tarmac vs. Apron

What is the name of the part of the airport where planes park and are serviced at the airport? Some people will say ramp. Many call it the tarmac. To others, it’s the apron.  Who’s right? Let’s take a look. 

Trucks and a plane on the ramp, er, apron at RDU.
Trucks and a plane on the ramp, er, apron at RDU.


Let’s knock one term out of the running right away. Though commonly used to describe the area where planes park, tarmac isn’t officially a place. That word is the name of a product produced by a British company that produces a surface coating that is applied to roads and airfields.

In fact, using tarmac to describe where planes park is like calling the area outside a building where cars park “the concrete” or “the asphalt” instead of calling it the parking lot. And, did you know, Tarmac® with a capital “T” is a registered trademark?


This is a term we use quite frequently at RDU. It’s a common unofficial term that is very much in use at airports throughout the U.S. and Canada. However, it’s not the official designation.

The use of ramp has its roots in airports that serve both seaplanes and traditional airplanes as a literal ramp from the water to the airfield.  Outside the U.S. and Canada, it’s a term that virtually no one uses.


If tarmac and ramp aren’t the official terms, then it’s got to be the apron. This is in fact the official term used by both the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which advises on aviation practices worldwide, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which regulates aviation in the U.S., to designate the area at the airport where parked and serviced at airports.

More On The Apron

The apron is a busy place. It’s the part of the airport where vehicles and airplanes share the same space. The many movements on the apron are not generally controlled by the air traffic control tower. At large airports, aprons are governed by their own towers while at small ones it could be left to each pilot.

At RDU, we have a mix. Aircraft movement on the Terminal 1 apron is up to the airline ramp workers and pilots.  At Terminal 2, our Ramp Tower oversees movement. (See, we use the term ramp quite a bit at RDU).

A series of pavement markings separate the apron from the taxiway. Vehicles and persons are required to get permission from the air traffic control tower before crossing those markings and entering what’s called the movement area of the airfield.

There’s also an apron or ramp (but not tarmac) at the General Aviation Terminal. And, you’ll also find a ramp, or apron, at each of our cargo buildings.

There you have it. Next time you‘re sitting at the gate waiting for your flight you can educate your fellow travelers on the difference between apron, ramp and tarmac.

Do you have an aviation term that you’d like to know more about? Tell me in the comments below!