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What is a Tarmac?

By Michael Giuffre
Updated May 23, 2024
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A tarmac is one of several different things, depending on usage and location. Traditionally, the word describes a technique or approach to paving that involves crushed rock or gravel held together with heated tar. The word describes the process and components rather than the end result, but roadways and driveways made of these elements sometimes carry the name in colloquial speech. In many places the word is also closely associated with airports, and in this context the word can describe any runway or paved concourse over which airplanes taxi regardless of how that surface was constructed. Purists insist that this usage is incorrect, but it has nevertheless become pervasive in much of the word.

Basic Idea

The art of road paving has changed and advanced over time. The earliest roads were made of loose gravel scattered over dirt; this gave cars and carriages some traction and helped prevent dust and mud, but wasn’t a permanent solution and posed certain risks when it came to vehicle damage and safety. Tarmac is one of the earliest and also most successful ways of binding crushed gravel together in order to form a uniform, level surface. The technique is used almost exclusively for roadways and driveways over which automobiles pass.

Core Components

There are only two essential elements in most cases, namely crushed gravel and tar. Warmed tar is usually the easiest to work with. Any sort of crushed gravel will do, but modern manufacturers often mechanically grind rocks of similar origin in order to end up with a powder that is uniform in both size and overall texture. This is combined with the tar, sometimes by hand in a bucket or pail but more often in a machine or truck that can agitate the contents and ensure an even distribution. It is then poured into moulds or over a prepared roadway and allowed to dry.

Brief History

Most researchers agree that the process for making this type of roadway was discovered quite by accident. Near the end of the 18th century, a man by the name of John MacAdam began paving roads by adding a layer of crushed gravel to an existing dirt surface. He called this process “macadamizing,” a name he derived from his own. However, over time the gravel tended to grind and disintegrate. While it was fine for carriages and horses, newly invented motor cars would turn up huge dust clouds and frequently sent rocks flying from beneath their wheels.

As the story goes, in 1901, British businessman E. Purnell Hooley was passing a tarworks factory when he reportedly noticed a barrel of tar that had spilled over the macadamized roadway. Someone had dumped gravel on the tar to cover it, and in traveling over this section of road, Hooley observed there was far less dust. Based on this discovery, Hooley set out to make his own pavement mixture and launched a company to sell it. The company was Tar Macadam, and after changing hands in 1905, "Tarmac" became a huge success.

Local Differences in Terminology

Americans commonly use the term "blacktop" to refer to paving or asphalt, largely due to its color. In British, Australian, and Indian English, however, the “tarmac” term is still quite commonly employed. In most cases, though, people use it to refer to any paved road or surface. In most parts of the world, tarless asphalt mixtures have largely replaced the traditional process. The word has become so ubiquitous in so many places that it is still very commonly used, though, even if wrongly.

In Airport Settings

One of the most common incorrect usages concerns airport runways. Many people use the term to refer to an airplane runway, most likely due to the fact that Tarmac was used extensively to construct runways during World War II. To this day, any large paved area at an airport is commonly referred to using this term, regardless of how it was made.

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Discussion Comments

By anon990873 — On May 13, 2015

The DOT, FAA, NTSB, AAAE, EASA and CAAC use "tarmac," but what would they know about airports?

All major pilot unions use it, and most major US airlines have been subject to fines for violation of The Tarmac Delay rule. All carriers, regardless of origin flying into the united states are required to have a tarmac delay plan (go ahead and check the CFR's)

"Tarmac" is a common aviation industry and regulatory reference to the areas on the AOA that are not exclusive aircraft maneuvering areas. It's a single word encompassing your mixed use paved/concreted areas including the apron, ramp, gate, parking, storage, hardstand, maintenance area and all the roads that connect them. These are areas that aircraft, vehicles and GSE share. Sometimes, as in the case of the CFR's, it may include taxiways.

Words can morph. Any "educated" person should understand that.

By anon268495 — On May 14, 2012

Tarmac is not widely used on roads any more, or ramps. That material is known as asphalt. Most large airports actually use concrete. Some county rural roads are actually paved with a tarmac like, or chip and seal like material over crushed rock.

The use of the term "Tarmac" shows the general lack of intelligence, and a willingness to repeat whatever term the media likes to invent. Many journalists tend to make blunders like this because they do not understand their subject matter, and/or are too lazy to properly research it.

By anon84675 — On May 17, 2010

Hey, this is anon40783 again.

I no longer work at the airport (it was a long time ago that I posted that comment), but I'm still in security (working on a naval establishment in Australia).

I assure you that, at Australian airports at least, all manner of staff and personnel who work in aviation are quite content to refer to all the surfaces that a plane might reside on collectively as a 'tarmac'.

We do occasionally use other terms, but we don't perceive it as dumb or uneducated to use a term that isn't technically valid by definition.

It's something of an established custom to associate an area with a word when the area was originally called by the name of the material it was composed of.

Think of the J in PB and J. Americans call it peanut butter and jelly, and we call it jam. It's not dumb to call it jelly, even though you're technically not eating gelatin with your peanut butter.

By Bandit — On May 10, 2010

To add to my other posts (as anon78276 & 83012), "tarmac" is a material, *not* a place.

By anon83012 — On May 08, 2010

To "anon82548": No one said asphalt is not used on airports. Of course it is, and in the manner you stated. "Tarmac" is not "asphalt" -- similar, but different! The term "tarmac" is only used by the clueless when talking about modern and/or US airports. The proper terms are: ramp, taxiway, runway.

By anon82548 — On May 06, 2010

Asphalt is indeed used on airports, people. It depends on the airport and surface and how heavy a plane can be to use a specific airport. Most major airports use concrete because of how heavy the big planes are, 747,787, or military c-5. Smaller airports use asphalt because it's very cheap and acceptable for lighter weight airplanes!

By anon78276 — On Apr 17, 2010

To "anon40783": you are *not* correct. It is "uneducated" to use the term "tarmac" to refer to modern airport surfaces, especially in the USA.

I'm a pilot and I can tell you that nothing makes a reporter/person sound dumber than to use the term tarmac, and I can also guarantee you no pilot, controller, or anyone else in aviation will ever use the term "tarmac" -- period!

By roger97 — On Aug 14, 2009

I thought this article was very informative. I read an article on airline courtesy and came across the word tarmac, I had heard years ago that tarmac was no longer a valid term; so I looked it up and somehow got to wisegeek and in turn became completely enlightened. I did sign-up for the wisegeek newsletter and am so excited. Thank you for the opportunity. Janet

By anon40783 — On Aug 10, 2009

I work at an airport as an aviation screener (security) and I can happily tell you that it's not just reporters who refer to airside areas as the tarmac.

Think of it as a custom; the meaning of the word has essentially changed to reflect the nature of the area itself, not what materials the runway is composed of.

Security, check-in staff, baggage handlers and even the pilots and cabin crew from the aircraft refer to it as the tarmac both on the radio and in official reports whenever there's an incident worth reporting.

Their use of the term has nothing to do with being uneducated. I'm sure that more than a few of the people who use the term tarmac have at one point or another seen articles such as this, but they don't make a fuss about it and start juggling taxiways, airways and by-the-ways when they try to describe something to somebody.

By vpl52 — On Nov 13, 2008

Tarmac is highway asphalt. Any commercial airliner rolling onto this surface would most likely quickly sink into this flexible material. Airport runways, taxiways and aprons are made with reinforced concrete often more than 12 inches thick. I believe Dan Rather at CBS news started using this word as an airport surfacing material. And it is probably too late to educate today's' journalists to these facts. I agree with anon15199 that reporters often just repeat what they hear without really considering what the words really mean.

By anon15199 — On Jul 04, 2008

It's rather uneducated to refer to elements of an airport system as a 'tarmac'. There are runways for takeoffs and landings, taxiways for getting to and from them and aprons for loading planes. I usually write off a reporter that uses 'tarmac' in a news story as one who doesn't do their homework to find out the proper location on the airport.

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