12 Confusing Travel Industry Expressions and What They Mean

Dec 22, 2014

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Learning the lingo is part of any hobby, and travel is no exception. Today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele explains a variety of travel related words and phrases that you’re likely to encounter, but may not fully understand.

If you travel, then you’ve probably been confronted with the confusing terminology thrown around by ticketing agents, flight attendants, and even pilots. Travelers of all experience levels are often expected to know the precise meaning of these terms, and the airlines love to play ‘gotcha’ when a single word doesn’t mean what you think it does. So today, I want to draw on my decades of travel and even my experience as a commercial pilot to illuminate some of the most misunderstood terms in travel and aviation. Hopefully knowing these terms will spare you some turbulence in the future.

Even if “air pockets” are a myth, there are very real reasons to keep yourself bucked in during a flight.

Air Pockets
Have you ever heard a flight attendant or passenger refer to an “air pocket?” You’ll never hear a pilot talk about air pockets, because they’re about as real as the Tooth Fairy. Aircraft shake due to turbulence, which is usually caused by one of two things. The most common cause of turbulence is convective activity—the up and down drafts that can cause thunderstorms.

While convective activity can often be avoided by using weather radar, clear air turbulence is usually what catches pilots and passengers by surprise. The more you learn about its danger, the more convinced you’ll be that you should keep your seat belt on at all times, even when the “seat belt sign” is not illuminated.

Other forms of turbulence include wake turbulence from other aircraft, and orographic turbulence due to air passing over mountains. If a flight crew ever starts talking about air pockets, you can bet that they’re either confused or pulling your leg.

Southwest Direct Flight Denver Route Map
A non-stop flight is what it sounds like, while a “direct” flight may involve stops or plane changes.

Non-stop vs. Direct
I see these terms used incorrectly almost every day, and you have much to lose if you fail to understand the difference. Non-stop means pretty much what it sounds like—that the airplane is not scheduled to land between its origin and destination.

On the other hand, the term “direct” never means what most people think it does. A direct flight can land somewhere to load and unload passengers or refuel, and passengers may even have to change planes, even if the “flight” continues on under the same flight number!

Each non-stop flight that makes up a piece of the so-called direct flight is referred to as a segment. So ultimately, the word “direct,” as used by airlines, is simply a marketing term that is devoid of any real meaning. Instead, it would be more accurate to avoid that word altogether and just say that a flight has a stop and continues on with the same flight number, either on the same plane or on a different one.

Reservation and confirmation numbers do not equal a ticket. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Reservation, Confirmation, and Ticket Numbers
These terms can also cause confusion and aggravation. Basically, a reservation number and a confirmation number are two different terms for the same thing, sometimes referred to as a record locator number. Regardless of the name, it’s a short series of letters and/or numbers that are attached to an itinerary, whether or not it has actually been purchased and ticketed.

Intelligent people can be forgiven for thinking that the terms “reservation” or “confirmation” imply some guarantee that the ticket actually exists and that passengers will not be turned away. In fact, airlines such as American, US Airways, and others routinely offer reservation or confirmation numbers when an award itinerary is merely being held. Passengers with a reservation or confirmation number can even select seats, which fosters the impression of actually having a ticket. However, if passengers don’t provide payment and the hold expires, their reservations and seat assignments are released, and the reservation or confirmation numbers become void.

Even when passengers offer payment and request ticketing, the reservation only becomes usable when it is ticketed. With most airlines, ticketing occurs almost instantaneously when payment is received. However, some airlines (American in particular) place reservations in a queue to be ticketed later. In addition, reservations that include flights operated by partner carriers often take longer to be ticketed.

Once a flight is actually ticketed, there will be a ticket number associated with it. This ticket number is what most people would think of as a confirmed reservation. To be sure you actually have a ticket, always ask for the ticket number, don’t be satisfied with a reservation or confirmation number. This is especially important when partner flights are part of the itinerary. Otherwise, the reservation or confirmation number is usually sufficient to check in or to have customer service retrieve your information.

Example of an open jaw itinerary: Denver to Frankfurt, returning Frankfurt to Dallas

Open Jaw
This term refers to a round-trip flight that either returns from a different airport than the original destination, or returns to a different airport than the original point of departure. For example, if I fly from Denver to Frankfurt, and then have a return flight home from London to Denver, that’s an open jaw itinerary. If I fly from Denver to Frankfurt, and then return from Frankfurt to Dallas, that is also an open jaw itinerary.

If I fly Denver to Frankfurt, and then return from London to Colorado Springs, that’s considered to be a double open jaw with two different origins and two different destinations. Airlines may issue awards that do not permit open jaw itineraries, or they may permit single or double open jaw itineraries. See Maximizing Stopovers and Open Jaws on Award Tickets.

Here’s another term that means something different to experienced travelers than it does to the average person. In the travel world, a stopover is a break in your itinerary that exceeds a predefined length. For an international itinerary, a stopover is generally considered to be any change of plane that exceeds 24 hours; anything shorter is referred to as a layover. If the layover is just under 24 hours, than it is merely a change of planes, and does not count as a stopover. This is important because different airlines have varying award travel rules that may not permit stopovers, or ones that may permit a single, or multiple stopovers. Again, see Maximizing Stopovers and Open Jaws on Award Tickets.

American Airlines is a member of the Oneworld alliance, but has other airline partners as well.

Partners vs. Alliances
Airlines have two types of partnerships: alliance and non-alliance. Alliance partners are airlines that belong to the same global alliance, such as OneWorld, Skyteam, or the Star Alliance. Non-alliance partners are those that do not participate in the same alliance.

For example, United has an alliance partnership with Air Canada, because they both belong to the Star Alliance. United has a non-alliance partnership with Aer Lingus, which does not belong to an airline alliance. In general alliance partners can earn and redeem miles on each other’s flights, while non-alliance partnerships do not necessarily offer both benefits.

This term is used to describe a flight that is marketed by multiple carriers with multiple flight numbers. American Airlines may have a flight 123 that is also listed in a codeshare as British Airways 456, even though American is operating the flight on its own plane. Sometimes these codeshares show up on the monitors at airports, making you wonder, for example, why British Airways is flying between Dallas and Amarillo.

Image Courtesy
Nope, definitely not what metal means in the airline industry. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

This term is industry slang that refers to the operating carrier of a flight. As discussed above with regard to codeshares, a flight may be ticketed by American, but it might be flown on US Airways metal, meaning the flight is operated by an aircraft that is painted in US Airways colors and staffed by US Airways employees.

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