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You’ve likely heard it said on the news or read it somewhere online about a plane being “on the tarmac” or something similar. But what exactly is a tarmac?

Tarmac (tarmacadam) is a type of surfacing material that’s used in the construction of roads and other outdoor areas, similar to asphalt. Contrary to popular belief no part of the airport is actually called the tarmac. Instead, the airport consists of runways, taxiways, and the apron.

The word “tarmac” seems to be thrown around a lot in the aviation world, at least by those not really in the aviation world. So what is it and what does it really mean? As you read this article, you’ll learn everything you want to know about the tarmac. What it is, what it isn’t, why the word is used so much, and more. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll be the expert on everything there is tarmac for the next time it comes up in conversation.

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Table of contents


What Is The Tarmac At An Airport?

You’ve likely heard the term at some point in your life, whether you’re an aspiring pilot, you’ve been a passenger in airplanes, or you’ve seen the news or movies. At some point, you’ve probably heard tarmac, likely to describe a paved section of the airport, often the runway itself. So is that it then, is the runway and the tarmac the same thing?

If only it were that easy.

That’s a bit of a tough question to answer because technically there is not actually such a thing as the tarmac. Tarmac is actually a material used for surfacing roads or other similar surfaces. It’s similar to asphalt in the way it’s made and used, consisting of small crushed rock that’s mixed with a certain type of tar. So this question would be the same as asking if a runway and asphalt are the same thing. Of course not!

Calling the runway the tarmac is something that’s been happening for decades in the aviation industry, perpetuated by misinformed newscasters, writers, and even other people in the field. It’s nothing to be ashamed of! Many people all over the world think that the runway and the tarmac are the same thing. But again, tarmac is just one type of surfacing material that can potentially be used as part of the construction of the runway (or other surfaces at the airport).

What Are The Parts Of An Airport If There’s No Tarmac?

As you just learned, there actually isn’t anything at an airport that’s known as the tarmac, it’s just a word that’s been misused again and again over the years so much that people have started believing it’s actually part of the airport. When it comes to the parts of an airport that planes will be traveling around on, there are three major ones to keep in mind:

  • Runways — we all know what runways are, right? The long, straight sections that the planes takeoff from and land on. It seems sometimes news stories and other media aren’t quite sure, as you might have heard something about planes being stuck on the runway for hours while delayed. Runways serve one major purpose — to take off and land aircraft.
  • Taxiways — while some people just assume that everything the planes move around on are runways, that isn’t the case. Most of the time, you’re actually riding around on taxiways. These are the little roadways that planes will drive along around the airport as you go from the runway(s) to the terminal and gate.
  • Apron — also known as the ramp, the apron is the large section of the airport where planes park to be refueled, de-iced, and maintained. It’s also the same place that the plane will be parked against the jet bridge so that passengers can board and leave the airplane.

As you can see, there is no section of the airport known as the tarmac. Instead, that’s just a material used in construction, similar to asphalt. So that then begs the question, is tarmac used at airports instead of asphalt and concrete?

Are All Runways And Taxiways Made Of Tarmac?

As mentioned a few times within this article, tarmac is just a surfacing material. As this wording implies, it is used as the top layer of a surface. It is not used as the only material that makes up a roadway of any kind, much less a runway. Runways and taxiways have quite a bit more to them than what you see from your seat on the plane. They’re not just a layer of tarmac sitting on the ground, that’s for sure!

Before I get into whether or not all runways and taxiways are made of runways, it’s important to quickly go over what’s actually included in the construction of a runway to begin with. This is because there’s a lot more to them than meets the eye.

If a layer of surfacing material (like tarmac, for example) was just laid out on the ground and planes drove over it, it would immediately start cracking and crumbling under the strain. In fact, there are multiple layers of material. These typically include a subgrade layer made of dirt, a subbase layer made of fine crushed stone, a base (or coarse base) layer made of larger crushed stone, and then finally the thin surface layer that you see.

That thin top surface layer is the only one of the four that could be made of tarmac. But the truth is, very few airports around the world actually use runways made of tarmac. The material of choice for the vast majority of airports is actually concrete. In some cases, an asphaltic concrete will be used if major changes are anticipated. But tarmac is very rarely actually used!

Is Tarmac The Same Thing As Asphalt?

Multiple times throughout this article, you’ve seen mention of the comparison between tarmac and asphalt. Often mistaken for one another due to looking identical to the naked eye, they are not actually the same thing. And both of these surfacing materials are of course vastly different from concrete, which you just learned is by far the most common material used for runway surfacing.

So what is the difference between asphalt and tarmac?

It really just comes down to how they are made since their uses and durability are relatively similar to one another. Tarmac is made of crushed stone that’s been coated and mixed with tar (hence the name). Asphalt, on the other hand, is made of crushed stone that’s been mixed with a semi-solid form of petroleum known as bitumen. Basically by using bitumen instead of tar, you’ll end up with asphalt instead of tarmac.

When it comes to use at airports and runways, keep in mind that neither one is commonly used since concrete is far and away the most popular material for runway and taxiway surfacing. At airports where the runways are expected to settle significantly and need repairs, an asphaltic concrete mixture may be used since it’s easier to repair than pure concrete.