I find it a bit difficult to clarify, while consulting the US published STAR and SID published charts, which fixes are designated as arrival, departure, approach, terminal and transition.

Could somebody point out the aforementioned distinctions or any source that would help clarify these terms? I have gone through the FAA's Aeronautical Chart User's Guide but I was unable to discern the subtleties of each definition.

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    $\begingroup$ Could you provide some places where those terms are used, for context? $\endgroup$
    – fooot
    Apr 27, 2018 at 19:27
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    $\begingroup$ I've never heard of a fix being specified as "arrival," "departure," etc. There are initial, intermediate and final approach fixes. But those are on approach plates, not STARs or SIDs. The only types I've heard of on STARs are reporting and non-reporting fixes $\endgroup$
    – TomMcW
    Apr 27, 2018 at 19:42
  • $\begingroup$ We can't really answer specific questions about materials that aren't publicly available. $\endgroup$
    – fooot
    Apr 29, 2018 at 23:43
  • $\begingroup$ At first it seemed logical to me that these were more common terms, but probably I was wrong. My bad. $\endgroup$ Apr 30, 2018 at 11:26

2 Answers 2


I am not an FAA controller or instrument rated but since you don't have an answer yet I will give it a shot. If someone has a better answer please post:

Arrival: IFR routes that start at radius about 30-50 NM from the airport. This is where airplanes usually start their descent. This can be controlled by en route or TRACON ATC.

Approach: An IFR route that outlines a particular approach to the runway. There are RNAV (GPS), VOR, and ILS approaches that are provided for an airport's runways. You would file an approach during your IFR flight plan but could be modified by ATC as needed. This is handled via ATC by approach control.

Terminal: The area handled by a TRACON (for busy airports).

Departure: Your IFR route filed when you depart from the runway. This is handled via ATC by Departure.

Transition: I am not so sure on this but I think this relates to going from arrival to approach.


A standard arrival procedure (STAR) will have multiple entry fixes (called "transitions" because that's where you transition from the en route phase to the terminal phase) that converge on a single fix for which the STAR is named, usually with one or more (optional) holds along the way that ATC can use to maintain separation. There may be more shared fixes or radar vectors after the convergence point to various IAPs. This phase is typically handled by approach control (APP), but it will be done by Center in areas without a TRACON. Note that there will usually be multiple STARs for a given airport depending on the direction you're coming from, and typically one complete set uses RNAV and another uses VORs.

Each instrument approach procedure (IAP) covers how to get to a particular runway with a certain kind of equipment; there is usually more than one IAP for a given runway, and some IAPs cover multiple runways. Regardless, once you're established on the IAP, APP (or Center) will hand you to TWR, or to CTAF if there is no TWR.

A departure procedure (DP, formerly SID) is roughly the same process in reverse: TWR hands you off to departure control (DEP), which takes you from the runway (via radar vectors or specific fixes) to a common fix and then out to diverging transition fixes, and then you're handed off to Center for en route flight. Like STARs, there is usually one set using RNAV and another using VORs.

The point of all this complexity is to safely manage a large number of aircraft, possibly flying in IMC in relatively close proximity to each other, by using paths that are known to be safe and relatively efficient yet with relatively little ATC interaction per flight--and most potential conflicts can be resolved simply by putting one of the flights in a charted holding pattern. If every flight had to be given every turn/descent/etc. by ATC, the workload would be completely unmanageable.

In an ideal world, you'd fly direct from your departure transition fix to your arrival transition fix, but in reality, you may be stuck on airways in between or at least some intermediate fixes due to ATC computer limitations.

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    $\begingroup$ It might be worth pointing out that the transitions are chosen depending on the direction of arrival, while the IAPs are chosen depending on the active runway, weather and available equipment, so the point of all the STAR variants is also to connect them in all combinations that may be needed (in a well defined way so that the various procedures that may be in use at one time don't interfere with each other). $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Nov 27, 2018 at 21:39

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